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Monday, August 9, 1999 Published at 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK


World: Europe

No let-up in Dagestan fighting

Russian trooops take up positions

Russian troops and police units have begun a third day of confrontation with hundreds of armed insurgents who Moscow says seized villages in the southern republic of Dagestan.

But the dismissal of Sergei Stepashin as Russian prime minister has raised concerns about a growing conflict in the Russian Caucasian republic.

Mr Stepashin had just returned from Dagestan with undisclosed plans to defuse the conflict when he was sacked by President Boris Yeltsin.


The BBC's Paul Day reports on the Russian prime minister's visit to Dagestan
Four policemen were reported dead in Sunday's fighting with the Islamist militants, but officials in Dagestan said they were killed accidentally in a Russian air strike.

The incident happened as Russian forces used helicopter gunships and artillery to try to dislodge hundreds of Islamists in the mountainous Botlikh area near the border with Chechnya.

Elsewhere in the north Caucasus region, two Russian soldiers were killed and three others abducted in an attack on a military training centre in north Ossetia. It was not immediately clear whether was any link between the two attacks.

Mr Stepashin, in one of his last acts as prime minister, flew to Dagestan on Sunday leading a high-level delegation of Kremlin officials charged with defusing the crisis.

(Click here to see a map of the region)

Hundreds of troops have been sent into the mountains to prepare for what is expected to be a major offensive against the rebels.

Mr Stepashin said that the situation had deteriorated, and the rebels had seized four villages.


[ image:  ]
He ordered military chiefs to restore order in the region, but stressed Russia had no intention of becoming embroiled in a repetition of the disastrous 1994-96 Chechen campaign.

"Russia will not repeat its mistakes in the north Caucasus. No more Russian soldiers will die there," he said.

Also in the republic on Sunday was Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo. He said he was there to "settle finally" the situation in Dagestan.

"Our position is well-known. It is a tough one, the bandits must be wiped out," he said in televised comments.

Refugees

Local officials went on television to ask for volunteers to help root out the rebel forces, who were reported on Saturday to have surrounded villages in the Botlikh area, southwest of the capital, Makhachkala.


[ image: Shamyl Basayev (left) has been blamed for the insurgency]
Shamyl Basayev (left) has been blamed for the insurgency
The head of the capital's administration, Said Amirov, said: "Every Dagestani has to react as a patriot and join the volunteers."

The regional authorities say that nearly 2,000 civilians have arrived in Makhachkala from the captured villages. The Dagestani Government has sent trucks to Botlikh to evacuate anyone else who wanted to leave.

Refugees arriving in the capital were quoted as saying the rebels were led by the Chechen Shamyl Basayev and a field commander of Jordanian origin known as Khattab.


BBC's Robert Parsons: "Violent battles are predicted"
The RIA-Novosti news agency said the several hundred insurgents included Arabs and Africans as well as Dagestanis among their ranks.

Police believe the rebels are linked to the fundamentalist Wahhabi Islamic movement, blamed for another attack in Dagestan last week.

Mr Basayev, who was prime minister of Chechnya for seven months from January last year, is still wanted by Moscow for his role in the raid on Budennovsk in southern Russia, in which 1,000 people were held hostage.

Fighting breaks out

Fierce fighting broke out on Saturday around the border villages, in what is believed to be the worst outbreak of violence in the region since the end of the Chechen war in August 1996.

Russia says the rebels crossed into Dagestan from Chechnya, but the Chechen authorities deny this.

Up to 2,000 gunmen were reported to be in the area. Itar-Tass said they were armed with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

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


[ image:  ]

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