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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rebel Forces Reported Ready for New Raid

MAKHACHKALA, Southern Russia -- Up to 1,500 Islamic militants have massed in Chechnya near the border with the Russian region of Dagestan, possibly in preparation for a new attack, an official said Thursday.

Islamic militants have twice crossed the Chechen border and seized villages in Dagestan since the beginning of August, clashing with Russian forces.

Interior Ministry spokesman Mikhail Arkhipov said 500 to 1,500 militants have gathered across the border from the Dagestani regions of Kizlyar and Babayurt, north of where the earlier incursions took place.

President Boris Yeltsin called for tightening security around the border with Chechnya.

"We are to do a great deal of work in this respect, and we shall cope with it," Yeltsin said in Moscow.

Arkhipov said Thursday the government had defeated the militants who invaded the Novolaksky region on Sept. 5, but also said two villages - Akhar and Shusheya - were still controlled by the gunmen.

His statements contradicted those made Wednesday by Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who said Dagestan had been completely freed of "terrorists" and that Russia would hunt down any more militants.

On Thursday, Sergeyev said federal troops were now working to prevent "a repeat militant incursion into Dagestan."

Russia has acknowledged hitting militants and their bases within Chechnya. Chechen authorities say some 200 civilians have been killed in the raids.

Some 15,000 people gathered in a square in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on Thursday to denounce the Russian strikes. Protesters also criticized the Russian government for linking Chechnya to a series of bombings in Russia since the start of September that have left about 300 people dead.

"Don't blame Chechnya for all the crimes committed," said one speaker, Abdulla Khasanov. "Leave us alone. If you don't, a new war will be unleashed, and we are ready to win it and defend our fatherland." Khasanov was referring to the 1994-96 war in which Chechnya drove out Russian troops and gained de-facto independence.

Also Thursday, Dagestan's parliament overwhelmingly passed a law that would ban an Islamic fundamentalist movement, Wahhabism. Wahhabi militants held two towns in Dagestan for a year before they were driven out in heavy fighting with Russian troops earlier this week, and have been blamed for violence throughout the region.

The parliament did not say how it would punish people practicing Wahhabism in Dagestan.