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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

7 Troops Killed in Chechen Gunfight




Russian authorities sharply reduced border access to Chechnya on Friday after guerrillas staged overnight raids in a neighboring Russian region, killing at least seven Interior Ministry soldiers and police and wounding 15 others.


The guerrillas attacked three checkpoints in Dagestan, east of Chechnya, and a police patrol in the neighboring Stavropol region Thursday night, officials said.


Russian soldiers returned fire and army helicopters destroyed a convoy of Chechen guerrillas moving along the border of Chechnya and Dagestan, said Vyacheslav Panchenkov, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry troops.


Guerrillas ambushed a five-man police patrol in the Stavropol region, north of Chechnya, and killed four of the officers. They wired the bodies with explosives and kidnapped the fifth officer, Panchenkov said.


The raids may derail a hoped-for meeting next month between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. The two sides have yet to agree on the status of Chechnya, which claims independence after driving out Russian forces in the 1994-96 war. Russia says Chechnya remains part of Russia.


The Interior Ministry said it was shutting down 50 out of 60 checkpoints along the border with Chechnya. Russian forces were beefing up the remaining crossing points with more armored vehicles and large-caliber machine guns, said an officer at the Interior Ministry troops' North Caucasian command.


The officer, who declined to identify himself, said in a phone interview from Stavropol that only one of the checkpoints in his region will remain open.


Also on Friday, Ivan Klimenkov, chief of the North Caucasian command staff in Stavropol, said that 2.2 million rubles ($91,000) have been allocated to strengthen border barriers between Russia and Chechnya.


In addition to the ditch that already exists along parts of the embattled frontier, the border with Stavropol region will have two deep ditches and barbed wire, Klimenkov told the region's Economic and Public Security Council.


He also said all Russian trains will now detour around Chechnya, and observation towers will be erected along the border, which will have a special sand line to allow border troops to detect crossings.


All these measures will bring Moscow closer to establishing a full-fledged international border between Russia and Chechnya - something that the Kremlin has been reluctant to do, fearing that it would give Chechen authorities further ammunition for their claims of independence.


"You know we cannot seal them off with a real border until a political decision is made" by the Kremlin, said Svetlana Martirosova, a police spokeswoman in Dagestan.


In addition, no controllable border was been drawn between Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia since the two provinces were separated in the early 1990's. Even if a decision was made to seal the Chechen border, people could still slip through Ingushetia and then into other Russian regions, experts say.


Panchenkov blamed Islamic extremists trained at the camp of Chechen warlord Khattab in Chechnya for the raids into Dagestan. "At this camp they have to prove themselves in fighting to graduate," Panchenkov said.


At least some of the graduates are natives of Dagestan, which explains why the raiding groups moved so freely within the region, he said.


One of the Dagestan attacks struck an Interior Ministry checkpoint near the village of Pervomaiskoye, with attackers firing large-caliber machine guns and mortars, Martirosova said. One of the mortars landed in a soldiers' tent, killing three men, she said in a phone interview from Dagestan's capital of Makhachkala.


Another eight soldiers were wounded in the attack.


Some 45 minutes later, guerrillas attacked a different checkpoint in Dagestan at thevillage of Aksai, wounding one soldier, Martirosova said. The soldiers answered with heavy return fire, forcing the assailants to retreat.


Martirosova said fighting then erupted at the outskirts of the Dagestani city of Kizlyar, when yet another group of guerrillas attacked a local water facility Thursday evening, wounding six.


Panchenkov said several helicopter gunships were dispatched to help repel the attack early on Friday. He said the helicopters detected a convoy of 15 trucks moving inside the Chechen territory and destroyed it with rockets.


He said there could have been more than 200 guerrillas in the trucks, but refused to either confirm or deny news reports that most of them were killed in the rocket attack.


Chechen border guards said Russian soldiers did fire across the border at them Thursday night, but they didn't return fire, Reuters reported.


Chechen authorities also denied Friday anyone from their side of the border took part in the raids. However, influence within the republic is divided between powerful warlords who openly reject the authority of Chechen president Maskhadov.


In fact, it was Russian generals who called Maskhadov early Friday to inform him that there was a battle raging between his unruly compatriots and Russian law enforcers, Panchenkov said.


More than 60,000, including thousands of civilians, perished during the Kremlin's abortive military campaign in Chechnya in 1994-1996. Since the war ended, both Chechnya and neighboring Russian provinces have continued to be plagued by violence.


Dozens of law enforcers and civilians have perished, and dozens more have been kidnapped for ransom. Russia's Interior Ministry estimates that more than 500 Russians are still being held hostage in Chechnya.