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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Rebels Trap Russians

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia - Rebels trapped a group of Russian servicemen in the mountains of southern Chechnya, prompting a gunfight that left at least five Russians and several rebels dead, an official said Thursday.

The shootout was the largest of several clashes around the rebel region over the preceding 24 hours - and came after ceremonies marking partial withdrawal of Russian troops amid claims that peace was returning after 17 months of war.

While large-scale fighting has died down, troops clash daily with small groups of rebels carrying out hit-and-run attacks.

A group of Russian servicemen spotted gunmen apparently planting a bomb on a road near the town of Vedeno Wednesday night, said an official with the pro-Moscow Chechen administration. The troops tried to seize the men but were quickly surrounded by a much larger group of militants, and a gunfight ensued.

Near the town of Alkhan-Yurt in central Chechnya, rebels ambushed an army column, blowing up the lead armored personnel carrier and shooting at the others with grenade launchers and automatic rifles, the official said on condition of anonymity. Two servicemen were killed and 11 wounded, he said. The rebels fled, and Russian helicopters pounded the area with rockets.

Another three Russian troops were killed when their bus struck a mine near Mekhkety in southeast Chechnya. And 17 raids on Russian checkpoints overnight left two Russians killed, the official said.

Despite the heavy publicized start of the troop withdrawal Tuesday, Russian fighters have intensified bombing runs in recent days, with particularly heavy fire on the Vedeno region Thursday.

The military has said it will reduce the 80,000-strong military and police force by about 25,000 army troops. Officials say a smaller force will be more effective.

Russian troops entered Chechnya in 1999 after independence fighters based there invaded a neighboring region, and after four apartment bombings in Moscow and two other Russian cities killed about 300 people. The bombings were blamed on rebels, who deny involvement.