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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Says Chechnya May Be Hit

MAKHACHKALA, Southern Russia -- Amid threats that Moscow will strike Chechnya if necessary, Russia on Friday continued massing troops in the Caucasus Mountains and launched new airstrikes against Islamic militants who invaded several villages there.

Acting Prime Minister Alexander Putin said a new operation had begun to oust the rebels from villages in the Botlikh region of Dagestan that they captured several days ago.

Putin didn't give any specifics about the new operation, but said Russia would not hesitate to strike rebel bases in the nearby republic of Chechnya, which has run its own affairs since a 1994-96 independence war.

"Chechnya - this is the territory of Russia, and we will strike at the militants wherever they are located,'' Putin said.

Putin's threat to strike Chechnya, where the Islamic militants apparently came from to invade the region of Dagestan, was the strongest indication yet that the uprising in Dagestan could turn into a larger-scale conflict.

The Interior Ministry said Russian paratroopers had captured a strategic hill on the outskirts of the rebel-controlled village of Ansalta in the morning. Troops also used helicopter gunships and artillery to attack Tando, another village where rebels are based.

It was not clear how many ground troops were involved. Russian officials reported five soldiers injured and said 10 militants were either killed or injured.

Overall, the Interior Ministry claims, at least 150 rebels have been killed and 300 wounded and 10 Russian soldiers have been killed and 27 wounded.

The rebels have said only five of their fighters had been killed and 15 wounded, Interfax said.

Five airplanes arrived in the region's capital, Makhachkala, on Friday with troops, weapons and medical equipment. Defense officials gave no further details about the shipment. A group of 50 elite OMON troops also arrived.

The Defense Ministry said troops in Dagestan were fortifying their positions near Botlikh and sweeping a southern area of rebels who were pushed from it after several days of fighting.

Russia is grouping its forces for a "cleanup of the Botlikh district'' that will start next Tuesday, said Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, commander-in-chief of the Interior Ministry troops.

The Interior Ministry admitted that the situation in the region remained tense because the rebels were blocking roads and ambushing troops, hindering Russian attempts to encircle them.

In Makhachkala, local authorities imposed a ban on public demonstrations, Dagestan's government said. Still, there was no sign of widespread support for the rebels. Many rebels belong to the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect and are seeking an independent Islamic republic in the Caucasus Mountains.

Also Friday, Putin ordered a pay raise for the soldiers in Dagestan ranging from 70 percent to 170 percent up from their current salaries, which are no higher than $50 a month.

The European Union on Friday voiced concern over the fighting. Finland, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said that it condemned the occupation of Dagestani villages by the militants and their declaration of an independent Moslem state in Dagestan.