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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Arms Pro-Moscow Chechens

ACHKOI-MARTAN, Chechnya -- The convicted embezzler tapped to head the Moscow-backed government in Chechnya collected and armed recruits for a paramilitary force during a tour Tuesday of a Russian-held Chechen city.

Meanwhile, the military showered bombs on Urus-Martan, a town on the last rebel-held route to Grozny.

The Russians are attempting to surround the Chechen capital and cut off militants from their bases in the mountains to the south. If Urus-Martan falls, the Russians hope they can close their pincers around Grozny.

With sunny weather increasing visibility, the Russians sent barrages of rockets and artillery shells slamming into Urus-Martan.

The rebels retaliated by staging ambushes in small groups and firing at Russian jets with large-caliber machine guns and shoulder-held rockets. The militants have been putting up a stiff resistance on several fronts in recent days.

"The resistance is growing day by day," Colonel General Georgy Shpak, the commander of airborne troops, said in an interview Monday.

In a new move, Russian commanders gave Kalashnikov rifles and uniforms Tuesday to a pro-Moscow militia composed of Chechens who say they will fight alongside federal troops.

The group is led by Bislan Gantamirov, a former mayor of Grozny who was serving a prison term for embezzlement before President Boris Yeltsin pardoned him earlier this month and chose him to lead a Moscow-backed Chechen government.

Gantamirov said he would encourage rebel fighters to defect to his group, but didn't say what military role the force would play. The group of about 200 men looked disheveled. Some were unshaven, some wore leather jackets and others military fatigues. They stood in a line in a muddy, snowy field for inspection by Russian regional commander Colonel General Viktor Kazantsev.

After weeks of retreating from the Russian onslaught, Russian officials said, Islamic fighters are fortifying their positions in Grozny, Urus-Martan, Shali and Argun.

An indication of the battles that may lie ahead came Monday when the Russian government belatedly acknowledged a firefight that decimated a Russian reconnaissance patrol.

Generals seemed to be trying to prepare the nation for some tough clashes ahead.

"They realize that there will be no peace negotiations, and that we are determined to complete this operation," Shpak said of the militants. "So they are trying to generate huge losses on our side to get us to change our mind."

The episode occurred Nov. 17 when a 14-man patrol left Botlikh in Dagestan and crossed into Chechnya. After spying a convoy of rebel trucks near Kharachoi, the patrol opened fire. The patrol reported the fighting, but its radio went dead after an hour of shooting. Shpak's men dispatched reinforcements, but the ground troops could not make it through the heavy snow and Russian helicopters turned away after being fired at.

The Islamic fighters were more successful. More than a 100 of their reinforcements arrived, according to Shpak.

Russians officials said that 12 of the patrol were killed and two captured.

The Russians have showed no sign of easing up despite the arrival of European diplomats calling for a negotiated solution to the conflict.

Alvaro Gil-Robles, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, traveled to Russian-controlled parts of Chechnya on Tuesday to inspect living conditions, Russian news reports said.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer criticized Russia on Tuesday for not setting a date for a visit to Chechnya by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe chairman Knut Vollebaek.

The ministers called on Russia to allow humanitarian aid into the region and said they were "shocked by the consequences of the repression on the civilian population."