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Monday, August 16, 1999 Published at 00:38 GMT 01:38 UK

World: Europe

Russians pound Dagestan rebels

Russia says it's gaining the upper hand

Russian officials say 80 rebels were killed in a day of fierce fighting in Dagestan as troops continue to try and quash a rebellion by Muslim separatists.

The BBC's Andrew Harding reports: "Chechnya has introduced a month long state of emergency"
Officials said 60 of the guerrillas killed on Sunday were crushed by a deliberate avalanche set off by troops.

The attack happened as Russian forces backed by air power and artillery pounded rebel positions throughout Sunday in the mountainous region near the Chechen border.

[ image: Russia has launched a major offensive]
Russia has launched a major offensive
But the rebels, who have declared independence in the southern Russian republic, dismissed the casualty reports as propaganda. They say they still control several villages which they seized last week.

(Click here to see a map of the region)

Acting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Moscow would pursue the offensive against Muslim rebels until the problem was resolved.

He said the key to the problem lay with the breakaway neighbouring republic of Chechnya from where international terrorist gangs were operating.

The Russian Interior Ministry says it bombed guerrilla points just over the border inside Chechnya on Saturday.

Emergency steps

In Chechnya itself, President Aslan Maskhadov announced a state of emergency would come into force at midnight.

The emergency measures include placing all troops on alert, imposing a night-time curfew and suspending all media except state-owned television.

The BBC's Andrew Harding: Chechnya is concerned about Russian aggression
Chechen border guards are on combat alert and their posts being beefed up along the border with Russia.

President Maskhadov said he had instructed security forces to prevent any armed groups from crossing into Chechnya.

The republic broke away following its 1994-1996 war against Russia, but is still technically part of the country.

'Rebels receiving outside help'

Russia launched a major campaign on Friday to dislodge more than 1,000 Muslim fighters from the Dagestan border area.

Moscow says it has proof the rebels are receiving outside help, and issued a warning to foreign governments considering whether to offer support.

[ image: Thousands of villagers have fled the fighting]
Thousands of villagers have fled the fighting
In a letter to the United Nations and several Islamic states, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said any assistance would be viewed as blatant interference in Russia's domestic affairs.

The Interior Ministry's spokesman in Dagestan said intercepted radio conversations showed the insurgents were incurring great losses and running out of ammunition.

"One can hear them making various hysterical appeals for people to come to their assistance at any price, in the name of Allah,'' he added.

'Traitors to Islam'

Muslim leaders in Dagestan have accused the rebels of being traitors to the cause of Islam.

They said the rebels, who belong to the minority Wahabbi sect, were stained with blood and wanted to use Islam and the hardships of the people to seize power.

[ image: Russian TV shows rebels with anti-aircraft guns]
Russian TV shows rebels with anti-aircraft guns
More than 6,000 refugees have fled the fighting, moving towards the Caspian Sea on the republic's eastern shore.

Russia has admitted losing three helicopters and at least 14 soldiers since the start of fighting. Dozens more have been wounded.

The prime minister has ordered pay rises of between 70% and 170% for troops in Dagestan because of the risk to their lives.

The Islamic militant fighters declared the independence of an Islamic Dagestan and proclaimed a holy war against Russia last Tuesday.

[ image:  ]

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