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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Federal Troops Fly In to Oust Dagestan Rebels

Planeloads of fresh federal troops and combat vehicles poured into Dagestan on Thursday as Russian leaders pledged to push Chechen-led Islamic guerrillas out of Dagestan.

"We believe that gradually ... without hurry this problem will be overcome," President Boris Yeltsin said during a televised meeting in the Kremlin.

Russian aircraft and artillery continued to pound the rebels for the sixth day. Warplanes already have flown 200 sorties in Dagestan, air force chief General Anatoly Kornukov said Thursday.

Federal troops working jointly with Dagestani volunteers Thursday forced the rebels out of the Tsumadinsky district, one of two they entered last Saturday, said Igor Senokosenko, spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Dagestan.

Federal forces have turned their attention to the Botlikhsky district, where Chechen warlords Shamil Basayev and Khattab control the villages of Ansalta and Rekhata, the spokesman said.

Senokosenko predicted the conflict would reach a "turning point" in two or three days.

There was no independent confirmation of Thursday's claimed successes. It was unclear whether the rebels had been badly hit, retreated to Chechnya or had moved to another location in Dagestan.

The Interior Ministry said 10 rebels were killed in Thursday's fighting and several of their anti-aircraft guns and two of their trucks were destroyed.

Since the fighting started, 150 rebels have been killed and 300 wounded, the ministry said.

The rebels acknowledged losses for the first time Thursday, but said only five of their fighters had been killed and 15 wounded, Interfax said.

Russian officials have said 10 men have been killed and 27 injured. The rebels shot down a helicopter on Wednesday, killing one serviceman and wounding three Interior Ministry generals. The rebels said it was the eighth Russian aircraft they had hit. Russia has admitted losing three helicopters.

Senokosenko also said Khattab, a Jordanian-born warlord based in Chechnya, was seriously wounded and his interpreter killed Wednesday in a clash with federal forces in a Dagestani valley. There was no independent confirmation.

Some observers have speculated that President Boris Yeltsin will use the unrest as a pretext for declaring a state of emergency throughout Russia and canceling parliamentary elections that could further strengthen his opponents.

The Versia weekly and the Segodnya daily have reported that Yeltsin's chief of staff Alexander Voloshin and Chechen warlord Basayev met secretly in what could have been an attempt to stage the war in Dagestan.

A presidential press service officer declined to comment on the reports.

Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the standoff between federal forces and Chechen-backed Islamic rebels does indeed seem to have been orchestrated by the Kremlin.

He said the Kremlin was unlikely to introduce a state of emergency and cancel elections over the present fighting, but wanted to "wave the flag" in front of the opposition to make them believe such a development was possible.

Malashenko said he expected the rebels to retreat to Chechnya in the near future with no military victory secured by either side.

At least four air force planes, carrying hundreds of police commandos and elite paratroopers, landed Thursday at an airport outside Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital, a spokesman for the head of Dagestan's governing State Council said.

Spokesman Eduard Urazayev said more units of police and soldiers are to arrive in his republic later this week to be dispatched in the two troubled districts, which are populated by Dagestan's largest ethnic group - the Avars.

Dagestani deputy prime minister and Avar leader Gadzhi Makhachev said Thursday on television that as many as 5,000 of his compatriots have volunteered to fight against the Islamic rebels.

The first unit of 350 Dagestani volunteers fought its first battle Thursday against the rebels, Senokosenko said.

Acting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told the Cabinet that the forces in Dagestan should be properly paid, noting that in Kosovo Russian peacekeepers received around $1,000 per month.

"Conditions in Dagestan are even more difficult. ... If we pay them as they deserve, they will complete the task more quickly," Putin said.

By entering Dagestan, Chechen warlords Khattab and Basayev have also demonstrated once again that they represent a formidable force that even Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov is unable to challenge.

Yet, it was President Maskhadov whom the Interior Ministry turned to Thursday in an attempt to organize a joint operation against the rebels along the Chechen-Dagestani frontier.

Maskhadov's representative in Moscow, Mayerbek Vachagayev, dismissed the request as a "provocation." He said the clashes in Dagestan were Russia's internal problem.

Many rebels belong to the fundamentalist Wahhabite sect and are seeking an independent Islamic republic in the mostly Moslem regions of the Caucasus Mountains.

However, they do not appear to have broad support among ordinary residents in Dagestan, unlike the war in Chechnya, where the vast majority of the population supported secession from Russia.

The U.S. State Department has condemned the rebels. Spokesman James Rubin said Tuesday that they were fighting against a "lawful authority" and that the United States supported the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.