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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rebel Base Attacked After Mi-8 Accident

VLADIKAVKAZ, North Ossetia -- Federal troops attacked a rebel base and killed 19 separatist fighters blamed for an assault on a helicopter, the second incident involving federal aircraft in as many days, officials said Tuesday.

An Mi-8 helicopter made an emergency landing Monday in the Vedeno area after it was fired on by a large-caliber submachine gun, and two of the 16 troops aboard were injured in the landing, an official with the pro-Kremlin Chechen government said on condition of anonymity. Soldiers immediately pursued the rebel group blamed for the shooting, and military officials claimed to have killed the 19 rebels, according to Itar-Tass.

The shooting came after Sunday's crash of another Mi-8 helicopter that killed all 14 people aboard, including two top Interior Ministry officials.

The crash was a result of an explosion on board the helicopter, and the chief of the General Staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, said Tuesday that a possible explanation could be the careless handling of weapons, according to local news reports. Although he did not entirely rule out a terrorist attack, he excluded the possibility that the helicopter was fired at from the ground.

Meanwhile, the Itogi magazine reported this week that sources close to the government and presidential administration were discussing a referendum on the Chechnya issue. According to the report, the ballot would offer voters three choices: continue the crackdown; allow Chechnya to break off from Russia; or divide the republic into two parts, one that would be the focus of reconstruction efforts and the other where fighting would continue.

Despite the continuing war, thousands of Chechen refugees are returning home. The population of the province rose last year to 750,000 from 490,000 in 2000, the Chechen government told Itar-Tass.

As many as 170,000 more people are expected to return this year, mainly from neighboring Ingushetia.

In a television address Monday evening, the head of the Chechen government, Stanislav Ilyasov, said this year would be the critical year for Chechnya to return to peace.

"The army has fulfilled its mission, and now law and order should be established by the law enforcement agencies and the security services," Itar-Tass reported him as saying.

The Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that it had protested to France over a Paris meeting between senior French officials and Akhmed Zakayev, a representative of rebel Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, Reuters reported.

The ministry said French Ambassador Claude Blanchemaison was called in and told that Paris' decision to receive Zakayev "contradicted the spirit of cooperation and partnership between our countries."

According to the ministry, Zakayev was received by Education Minister Jack Lang and senior Quai d'Orsay officials.

"In Moscow the question was asked -- who sanctioned a meeting with the representative of Chechen extremists who have proven, direct links with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida?" the statement said.

The French Embassy in Moscow declined to comment.