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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Helicopters Fire Missiles on Chechnya

Russian helicopters fired missiles Friday on Chechnya, and Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin vowed to "eliminate" criminal gangs in the region, sparking fears that Russia may open a new chapter in its violent relations with the breakaway republic.

Two Mi-24 gunships fired on a guerrilla camp in Chechnya after two border clashes earlier Friday that left 10 dead and dozens wounded on both sides.

About 70 armed militants attacked a Russian checkpoint in neighboring Dagestan at around 2 a.m. A second attack followed some six hours later, leaving one Russian officer and nine Chechen militants dead, Interfax reported.

Clashes along the border of Chechnya, which is plagued by armed gangs and kidnappings, are almost daily occurrences. But Friday's events were of a much more alarming nature, threatening the tenuous ties between the Kremlin and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's lawless republic.

Stepashin is pushing for a meeting between President Boris Yeltsin and Maskhadov. On Friday, the prime minister said the Chechen leadership must be told that "it is time to use power," Interfax reported.

Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo played down the missile attacks Friday, adding that they were necessary measures taken in retaliation for the losses Russian border guards suffered earlier in the day. A senior Russian lieutenant, Alexander Misyura, died in the ambush.

However, Chechen Security Minister Turpal Atgeriyev denied that Chechen militants were responsible for the dawn attacks on the Russian outpost, which is located in Dagestan's Babayurt district. He insisted the helicopter attack was an attempt to provoke "a military conflict and get Chechen armed forces and the population involved."

The missile attack coincided with the safe return of two Russian Orthodox priests and five Russian soldiers who had been held captive in Chechnya.

After welcoming the priests home to Moscow, Stepashin took a harsh line against Chechen terrorists, vowing to stop the kidnappers, who still hold hundreds of people hostage in Chechnya and the surrounding region.

"Those who rob and kill people should not only be punished but also eliminated. There can be no place for them on this Earth," Stepashin said Friday, apologizing to Patriarch Alexy II for his strong words.

The patriarch was part of the entourage celebrating the return of Pyotr Makarov and Sergei Potapov, priests who were captured from villages in neighboring Ingushetia, and who spent roughly two months in captivity. Appearing haggard and bruised, both men said their abductors kept them in a pit, fed them only rarely and beat them regularly. The priests said they were forced to write a letter to Alexy asking him to pay a ransom.

Interior Minister Rushailo was also on hand to report that the priests and soldiers had been freed by Russian police commandos, but he refused to comment on the details of the operation.

"We won't say what methods were used," Rushailo told reporters at the airport. "The special services never disclose their methods."

But even as the Interior Ministry was celebrating the release as a victory, rumors of how and by what means the release was secured began to circulate.

Many analysts remained skeptical that the hostages were in fact freed by a police raid, and not by some financial persuasion. One of the returning soldiers, for example, said that his captors had been paid a ransom.

"It all smacks of a cheap publicity stunt," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, adding that the hostage release gave a well-timed boost to the lagging political fortunes of Russia's new prime minister, who has been struggling to keep control of his Cabinet.

"Stepashin has had a rough few days, with more and more people thinking that he was a weakling who could be manipulated by Yeltsin's entourage," Piontkovsky said. "He was looking like a chicken, but this allows him to be macho."

Stepashin, who served as interior minister until being tapped to lead the government earlier this month, gained notoriety for his role in Russia's failure to tame the breakaway Chechen republic in the 1994-1996 war, which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.

Since then, he has made numerous statements about the need to conduct a merciless crackdown against Chechen "terrorists." The release of the hostages also benefits Rushailo f a protege of Stepashin f securing his reputation as a man who is able to battle Chechen kidnappers.

Rushailo's name has figured prominently in the release of other hostages held in Chechnya. He is widely believed to have worked closely with controversial business tycoon Boris Berezovsky to purchase their freedom, reportedly paying huge ransoms to the kidnappers. These reports have been repeatedly denied by law enforcement officials.

But after Friday's release of the priests, the question of ransom money arose once again. Piontkovsky speculated that Rushailo had enlisted the financial help of Berezovsky to win their freedom.

"At least the organizers of this show had the taste to make sure that Berezovsky didn't get off the plane with the hostages this time," Piontkovsky said.