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Sunday, August 8, 1999 Published at 06:47 GMT 07:47 UK

World: Europe

Dagestan military attack looms

Government troops in Dagestan are reported to be preparing a large-scale assault against suspected Islamic militants who have surrounded two villages, close to the Chechen border.

On Saturday, Russian helicopter gunships opened fire on the militants in the southern Russian republic.

The BBC's Joanne Shoebridge reports: "Russia has never recognised Chechnya's independence"
Dagestani officials said a fierce battle had broken out between Russian security forces and the infiltrators.

Up to 500 men crossed into Dagestan from neighbouring Chechnya on Saturday morning, according to reports from the remote mountainous area.

Officials say the infiltrators began digging trenches around the villages, Ansalta and Rakhata, in Botlikh district of the Caucasus mountains.

Islamic group

[ image: Dagestani officials are blaming Islamic militants for the attack]
Dagestani officials are blaming Islamic militants for the attack
Correspondents say the fundamentalist Wahhabi Islamic is being blamed for the attack.

The group has been active in Chechnya and Dagestan since the Chechen independence war which ended in 1996. It is demanding that the two republics merge into a single Islamic state.

Russian news agencies said a third village may also have been taken.

The BBC's Rob Parsons in Moscow: The Russians have been taking a much tougher line
Earlier Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin told his top military officers to restore order and more troops were sent to the area.

"Bandits are bandits. One needs to tackle them appropriately," he said.

Lessons learnt

[ image: Russia has stepped up security in recent weeks]
Russia has stepped up security in recent weeks
Mr Stepashin played an important role in Russia's disastrous war in neighbouring Chechnya as head of domestic intelligence. However he was keen to point out that lessons had been learnt from that conflict.

"Russia will not repeat its mistakes in the North Caucasus. No more Russian soldiers will die there," Interfax quoted him as saying.

The Russian Chief of General Staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, is due to leave on Sunday for the area to take command of the operation.

Russia has stepped up security in the Caucasus region in recent weeks following a number of armed attacks, some aimed against its security forces.

On Saturday, the Deputy Director of the Congress of Muslims in Dagestan and Chechnya, Movladi Udugov, warned that the situation in the region was becoming increasingly unstable and "may explode at any moment".

Last year violent clashes erupted in the Dagestani town of Makhachkala after armed supporters of another Islamic group, the Russian Union of Muslims, stormed the government building and held a rally calling for the creation of an Islamic state.

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