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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

15 Killed As Rebels Ambush Convoy

NAZRAN, Ingushetia -- Chechen rebels using grenade launchers and radio-controlled mines ambushed a Russian military convoy as it moved through a gorge Sunday, and the government said at least 15 soldiers were killed.

The guerrillas claimed Monday to have killed 80 men and to have lost none.

But either way, Sunday's attack near the village of Serzhen-Yurt, about 25 kilometers southeast of Grozny, was one of the bloodiest outbursts in Chechnya in weeks.

Russian military leaders warned the rebels were likely to launch more attacks as spring brings greenery to the southern regions of Chechnya, where it can be used as camouflage.

"The [Chechen] fighters are not dilettantes. They understand that they do not have the strength or possibility to fight in open battle, so they have started operating from ambushes," Lieutenant Colonel Igor Kalinenkov, a paratroop commander, told Interfax.

Military leaders also said Monday that the federal troops would step up their campaign against the rebels in coming days, Interfax reported.

The military command estimated Sunday that 2,500 to 4,000 rebels remain in eastern regions of Chechnya bordering the republic of Dagestan.

In recent months - judging from the official record, at least - they have dealt federal forces some of the most vicious blows of the entire war:

-On Feb. 29, some 84 paratroopers from Pskov were killed in a battle in the mountains.

-On March 2, some 37 servicemen from the Moscow region village of Sergiyev Posad were killed in an ambush outside Grozny.

-On March 29, another 43 servicemen from Perm were killed in an ambush of their convoy near the mountain village of Vedeno.

-On April 6 and April 12, ambushes near the Argun Gorge left at least one serviceman dead.

The military said the attackers in Sunday's ambush had included Arab mercenaries as well as Chechens.

Movladi Udugov, a spokesman for the Chechen guerrillas, said the rebel unit that had carried out the attack was part of a force under the command of well-known field commander Shamil Basayev.

News agencies quoted Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev as saying that 15 soldiers had died and six vehicles were destroyed, mainly fuel tankers. The military also said 15 rebels had been killed.

Originally the military said that only five soldiers had died.

Udugov said 80 soldiers had been killed and 13 vehicles, including tanks and armored troop carriers, wrecked.

"The armored column was totally destroyed," Sergeyev was quoted as saying.

Udugov said the rebels had ambushed the columns with bombs placed as booby traps, and had then opened a furious barrage of fire with automatic rifles and grenade launchers.

Russian news agencies quoted the military as saying the column had been made up of a paratroop unit, which was escorting arms and supplies for troops in the Serzhen-Yurt region.

Russia has been fighting the rebels for more than six months and has seized most of the province's territory. The rebels have held out in the southern mountains and have launched regular raids in what they call a partisan-style guerrilla war.

Both sides have given exaggerated figures for each other's losses throughout the war.

Russian news agencies quoted the military as saying that its planes had carried out 16 raids, mostly on mountain targets.

Udugov said warplanes had also blasted the site of the latest ambush after the fighting as well as the nearby village of Serzhen-Yurt.

The Russian offensive in the region has been criticized in the West for excessive use of force, particularly by the Council of Europe, which monitors democracy and rights issues.

Russia's chief official in Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, said two senior Council of Europe envoys would visit Chechnya on Wednesday to see if they could send a permanent team.

"If the security situation allows it then Chechnya will be open for other international organizations," Koshman told Ekho Moskvy radio.

The new fighting has undermined any talk of a truce in the region and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov denied he had told Kommersant last week that he had ordered a cease-fire.

Maskhadov was quoted by Kommersant last Friday as saying he had ordered his men to start the truce as part of a proposed peace deal.

"They did not understand me properly," Maskhadov was quoted by U.S.-funded Radio Liberty as saying of the interview.

He said he was ready for a cease-fire if both sides agreed to stop the fighting and if negotiations were held.

President-elect Vladimir Putin had in any case poured scorn on Maskhadov's ability to arrange such a cease-fire.

Putin said the rebel leader did not control all the guerrillas in the region and could not guarantee that the terms of any peace deal would be respected.

The Interior Ministry on Monday said its forces had foiled a terrorist attack in the capital, destroying 80 kilograms of plastic explosive that had been placed in a building, Itar-Tass reported. No more details were available.