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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

AttackingChechens Pummel Troops

NOVYE ATAGI, Chechnya -- Russian forces battled Monday to hold on to two key towns under heavy attack by Chechen rebels, and Moscow admitted for the first time that its forces had suffered major losses.

With its offensive to take Chechnya stalled, the Russian military has been forced on the defensive by Chechen rebels in recent days. The rebels launched attacks Sunday to take the towns of Argun and Shali, which were captured last month by Russian forces.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said Monday that rebels killed 26 Russian soldiers and wounded 30 during the last 24 hours. Russia has claimed for weeks that its losses are no more than one or two a day, despite persistent reports by soldiers in Chechnya that casualties are much higher.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Monday that a temporary lull in bombing of the capital for Orthodox Christmas was over. But Russian forces did not stop ground operations around Grozny despite the weekend lull.

After steadily retreating over the last few months, the rebels have gone on the offensive in the past week in Grozny and other parts of Chechnya.

Russian commanders said their troops had gained the upper hand in Argun and Shali after rebel attacks, but reports from the area said fighting was still raging for the two towns.

Colonel General Viktor Kazantsev claimed that Russian forces on Monday pushed back a force of 300 rebels who attacked Argun, located 15 kilometers east of the capital.

"The federal troops are in full control of the situation within the town," Kazantsev said. He said federal troops were "mopping up" Argun, an indication that scattered groups of rebels were still putting up resistance in the area.

Chechen forces rejected the Russian claims, insisting Monday that they were in control of Argun.

Acting President Vladimir Putin "will beg us for peace," said Salanbek Aduyev, a rebel warlord.

In Sunday's attack, the rebels blockaded 30 to 50 Russian officers and soldiers inside the local military headquarters and an unknown number of servicemen in the train station, Lieutenant Colonel Konstantin Kukharenko, a military spokesman, said Sunday.

Kazantsev said Russian troops had the upper hand in Shali, located 20 kilometers southeast of Grozny. But military sources told Itar-Tass there was still heavy fighting in the town.

Interfax also reported that federal troops were surrounded in the local administration building in Shali, and that well-protected militants were firing on them from nearby buildings.

According to Itar-Tass, rebels were also holding hostages in a school in Gudermes, east of Argun and the largest Chechen city the Russians claimed to control. The news agency did not say how many hostages were held in the school, but said federal forces were trying to free them.

Militants had ambushed an Interior Ministry troop column on Sunday outside Gudermes. Five armored personnel carriers that were sent to support the embattled troops also came under attack.

The fighting in Argun, Gudermes and Shali - all seized by Russia weeks ago - underscored how difficult it will be for federal forces to gain control of Chechnya, with the rebels able to attack deep into Russian-held territory.

Russia began the campaign to retake Chechnya in September in response to invasions into neighboring Dagestan by Chechen militants and four bomb blasts that killed about 300 people in Moscow and two other Russian cities.

Heavy street fighting raged in Grozny on Monday, with helicopter gunships rocketing rebel positions, Itar-Tass reported.

The Defense Ministry said its forces were still encountering stiff resistance from well-armed Chechen fighters in Grozny, but insisted that the rebels were suffering high casualties. Helicopter gunships rocketed rebel positions in the northwestern Staropromyslovsky district, supporting ground attacks, and the military claimed some 100 militants had been killed.

Also Monday, Interfax said federal jets flew 50 attack sorties in the last 24 hours around the village of Vedeno and the Argun gorge, deep in the southern mountains where the Russians have yet to take control.

Attack helicopters made more than 60 sorties to hit rebel strongholds and support Russian ground troops, Interfax said.

Despite the latest attacks against the Russians, General Kazantsev said Monday that the Russian offensive would end in two months, according to Itar-Tass. Russian commanders have made similar claims several times, but the military doesn't appear close to a final victory in Chechnya.

As federal forces have intensified their assault on Grozny and the southern mountains, the rebels have promised to wage a guerrilla war in areas already controlled by Russian troops. Over the past several days, they have launched several attacks around Gudermes.