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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Amnesty Passes, Fighting Flares

APWomen weeping after the apartment blast Friday in Grozny that killed 11 people.
Fighting flared in Chechnya over the weekend despite a new amnesty offer for rebels, with a fierce two-day battle in one town leaving at least 20 people dead, including two civilians.

The battle in Argun, east of Grozny, began when a convoy of troops accompanied by pro-Moscow Chechen police was ambushed Friday afternoon, military officials said.

A spokesman for the military operation in Chechnya, Ilya Shabalkin, told Itar-Tass that the "operation to liquidate armed bands" -- a term that military officials often use to describe fighting with rebels -- was over by Saturday evening. Shabalkin said Chechnya's deputy military commandant, Aud Yusupov, was killed along with three other servicemen and two civilians, and that 14 rebels were killed and 10 others escaped.

An official in the Moscow-backed Chechen administration said six servicemen were killed and five injured.

The official said federal forces and Chechen police were encircling Argun on Sunday and preventing people from entering or leaving.

The fighting came as an amnesty approved in third reading by the State Duma on Friday took effect. The Duma voted 352-25 to pass the amnesty, which pardons rebels who give up their weapons or renounce armed separatism by Sept. 1. It also applies to federal troops.

The amnesty does not pardon rebels or federal soldiers who have committed grave crimes or to foreigners. It equally denies clemency to rebels found to have tried to kill federal police and servicemen -- an exception that critics say could make it meaningless because it could be used to prosecute any insurgent.

Chechnya's pro-Moscow leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, said Saturday that rebels have been handing in arms and predicted they would do so in greater numbers under the amnesty.

The first person to disarm under the amnesty was Sultan Eskikhanov, a resident of Serzhen-Yurt, southeast of Grozny, Shabalkin said Sunday.

He said Eskikhanov contacted authorities through his relatives and surrendered a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Eskikhanov is barred from leaving the region while authorities verify his claim that he was involved in armed rebel groups but did not take part in terrorist acts, Shabalkin said. He said the process should take a few days.

Hours before the Duma voted for the amnesty, an explosion ripped through an apartment building in Grozny, killing 11 people.

Officials said the blast was probably caused by a natural gas leak.

Grozny Prosecutor Igor Samokhin said there had been no major repairs on the building following devastating fighting in the city over the past decade and that its gas pipes were in bad condition, Itar-Tass reported.

The blast came a day after a suicide bombing targeting a bus in North Ossetia. A Chechen Interior Ministry spokesman said Friday that two women injured in the attack died overnight, bringing the toll to 20.