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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Some Troops Will Leave Chechnya

The Defense Ministry on Monday announced a small troop withdrawal from Chechnya, while officials gave conflicting accounts of a weekend skirmish involving bodyguards working for Chechnya's pro-Moscow leader, Akhmad Kadyrov.

Colonel Nikolai Deryabin, the head of the ministry's press service, said more than 1,000 servicemen and 200 pieces of military equipment would be leaving Chechnya.

"Taking into account the steady tendency toward normalization of the situation in the majority of the republic's flatlands and the transfer of powers to the [Chechen] police organs, it is planned in the first place to withdraw units and sub-units that were previously drawn into sealing off settlements and areas of terrorist activity and providing fire support for the troops," Deryabin was quoted as saying by the Interfax-Military News Agency.

It was the first clear indication of troop reductions since Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced in November that Moscow was suspending a planned withdrawal from Chechnya in the wake of a rebel hostage-taking raid on a Moscow theater. A ministry spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the withdrawal would not be part of a normal rotation of troops.

Up to 100,000 troops and special police are stationed in Chechnya, according to independent analysts.

Deryabin said the 42nd motorized infantry division, military commandant's staffs and special groups to fight rebels in the mountains would remain in Chechnya. They will be joined by military engineering units to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure, he said.

Meanwhile, officials and Russian media gave conflicting accounts of a skirmish involving bodyguards loyal to Akhmad Kadyrov -- an example of the continuing turmoil undercutting Moscow's frequent assurances that the region is returning to normal.

Interfax, citing unnamed law enforcement sources, said four bodyguards, three policemen and one gunman were killed in an attack on Kadyrov's motorcade Saturday night.

It later quoted Chechen chief prosecutor Vladimir Kravchenko as saying Kadyrov was not in the convoy and the column itself had not come under attack. Instead, the security guards joined a police unit checking a tip about rebels in the eastern city of Argun, and the whole group was ambushed, he said.

Itar-Tass, citing Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Tsakayev, said four of Kadyrov's bodyguards had been wounded, one seriously, after their motorcade strayed into a rebel attack on a military convoy. He said Kadyrov's car had escaped the fighting, while some of his bodyguards returned fire.

An official in Argun, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the shootout had actually been between security forces loyal to the former mayor of Argun, Movsar Temirbayev, and Chechen riot police officers. The firefight was touched off by the recent killing of one of Temirbayev's guards, and Kadyrov's guards, who are led by Kadyrov's son Ramzan, had joined the fight against the riot police. Four riot police officers were killed, the official said.

? Two top European human rights bodies expressed concern Monday over the upcoming constitutional referendum in Chechnya, saying Moscow needs to do more to ensure a fair and accurate ballot.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe sent a joint mission to Chechnya to assess conditions ahead of the March 23 vote.

In a statement, the groups noted the continuing violence in Chechnya and urged officials to make it easier for thousands of Chechen refugees living outside the republic to cast ballots.

"Kidnappings, assassinations and other physical assaults against local government officials and ordinary citizens continue," the statement said, adding that many refugees may be "disenfranchised" because they are reluctant to return home to vote.