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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Helicopter Shot Down in Ingushetia

APVillagers looking at the debris of the Mi-24 military helicopter shot down Thursday in Galashki, Ingushetia, during heavy fighting with rebels. Both pilots died in the crash.
GALASHKI, Ingushetia -- A Mi-24 military helicopter was shot down Thursday in Ingushetia during a fierce firefight with rebels. The two airmen were killed and at least 14 servicemen died in the battle.

The rebel incursion could be the final provocation leading Russia to launch attacks in Georgia, which it accuses of failing to take effective action against Chechen rebels allegedly based there, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said, speaking in Warsaw.

The Kremlin information office said up to 150 rebels charged into a forested part of Ingushetia early Thursday, after making their way in small groups over a 120-kilometer stretch of mountainous terrain from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. Fighting centered on the village of Galashki, less than one kilometer from the border with Chechnya.

Ivanov said 14 soldiers died in the clash. Russian television showed live footage of military helicopters firing flares over forested hills in what journalists described as a hunt for remaining fighters.

During the fierce firefight, rebels downed an Mi-24 helicopter, killing both pilots, said Colonel Boris Podoprigora, a commander of the federal forces in the North Caucasus region. Citing military and police sources, Interfax blamed the downing on a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile.

The rebels also fired at another helicopter but it was not damaged, said Madina Khadziyeva, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry in Ingushetia.

An official in the headquarters of the 58th army, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 80 rebels died in the fighting. Russian media and military officials routinely inflate Chechen casualty figures.

Ivanov previously has said Russia is prepared to launch attacks in Georgia against rebel positions. In Warsaw, asked if Thursday's fighting could be the "last drop" before Russia's patience runs out, Ivanov said, "It may be."

Journalists were taken to a military camp outside Galashki, where they were shown four bodies, one of which was believed to be that of a British freelance television cameraman. Federal forces said they found the body and an accompanying passport with the name Roderick John Scott. His birth year was given as 1973. The passport had a Georgian visa, which was issued in June and expired on Sept. 15.

In London, Frontline Television News confirmed that a freelance cameraman who had provided them with footage for about six years had been in Georgia for about two months. The cameraman went by the name Roddy Scott, and the name in his passport was Gervase Scott, Frontline said.

"Obviously, it is a matter of grave concern that a British citizen has been killed," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, speaking in London.

Arabs, a Turk and a Georgian national were also found among the dead fighters, Interfax reported, citing an unnamed source in the Ingush security service. Itar-Tass said none of the dead rebels had Russian identity papers.

A top Georgian official said Thursday that authorities were not trying to prevent rebels from crossing into Russia.

"We want them to leave and it seems they've left and are already in Russian territory. Let Russia deal with them," said Deputy Security Minister Lasha Natsvlishvili.

Ivan Sekretarev / AP

A Russian officer standing over the bodies of rebels killed in combat near Galashki.
The rebels' arrival in Ingushetia, however, was a surprise for the Russians. While Ingushetia is home to hundreds of thousands of Chechen refugees, it has managed to stay out of the fighting that engulfed its neighbor. The incursion could destabilize the already fragile coexistence between ethnic Ingush and displaced Chechens living in sprawling tent camps throughout the republic.

By late Thursday, federal forces had surrounded Galashki, and the 58th army headquarters reported that the remaining rebels were trapped on a farm. An Associated Press photographer in the region said security was heavy and busloads of civilians were seen leaving.

Journalists were also shown booty allegedly seized by the rebels, which included machine guns, an instruction manual on how to lay land mines and a copy of the Koran.

An anti-aircraft missile launcher was also on display.

Weakened by three years of fighting, the insurgents have been forced to shift tactics away from large-scale offensives. Since last September, when they successfully downed a military helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile, the rebels have hit Russian aircraft to devastating effect several times.

In August, rebels shot down a huge Mi-26 transport helicopter on its way to military headquarters in Khankala, Chechnya, killing at least 119 Russian servicemen in the worst military aviation catastrophe in Russian history. Less than two weeks later, an Mi-24 was downed by a missile in southeastern Chechnya.

Russia's Yezhenedelny Zhurnal magazine reported that at least 34 helicopters have been lost in the last three years of fighting, compared to 14 in the 20-month first Chechen war, which ended in 1996. But most losses are due to malfunctions or pilot error.