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Jonathan Charles from the Chechen border
"Russia has been forced to admit the operation in Chechnya isn't going to plan"
 real 28k

Monday, 6 March, 2000, 17:02 GMT
Chechen rebels besieged
Wounded Russian soldier
Russian troops are paying a high price for the offensive
Russia says its forces will wipe out rebels they have surrounded in southern Chechnya, as they press on with their offensive to seize complete control of the republic.

Battle for the Caucasus
Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said the rebels were beseiged in two small pockets in mountains near the Georgian border - the villages of Selmentausen and nearby Komsomolskoye, at the top of the key Argun gorge.

"Fierce fighting is going on at Komsomolskoye. There were losses but I do not have exact figures," he said, promising a "tough wipe-out" of rebels in the settlement.

The rebels seized the villages on Sunday night as they tried to break through the cordon set up by Russia around the gorge.

Russian fighter
Fierce battles continue in the south
Some 70 rebels are reported to have laid down their arms near Selmentausen on Monday, and federal forces are shelling Komsomolskoye in an attempt to oust their comrades.

One officer nearby said as many as 50 Russian soldiers had been killed and others wounded since Sunday.

Mr Yastrzhembsky said there were 1,500-2,000 fighters in the mountains, but could not exclude the possibility that up to 1,000 of these might have succeeded in escaping.

Rebel tactics

The BBC's Jonathan Charles on the Chechen border says the security situation in the south is worsening and the rebels have adopted a new strategy of launching ambushes and guerrilla raids on Russian troops.

Coffins of Russian war dead
Russians bury their war dead
Earlier, Russia cancelled Monday's visit to Chechnya by representatives of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), ostensibly because it could not guarantee their safety.

Meanwhile, a report on Russian TV said paratroopers had stormed strategic heights above the Argun and Vedeno gorges on Monday, killing up to 50 rebels. Four Russian troops were killed.

The push to take the gorges has exacted a heavy toll on Russian forces in recent days, although accurate casualty figures remain notoriously difficult to obtain.

Mourning

Russia's leadership had said the gorge was under its control, but it was the scene of a bloody counter-attack over the weekend when rebels killed 31 paratroopers in fierce battles as they tried to break out into Chechnya's flatland.

The fighting - near Selmentausen, and a second village, Ulus-Kert - was the second major set-back for Russian troops in a few days after 20 soldiers were killed in an ambush near the Chechen capital, Grozny, last week.

On Monday, Russians crowded into a church outside Moscow to mourn those victims.

Acting President Vladimir Putin, whose popularity stems largely from his tough conduct of the war, will be hoping for swift progress in the operation to wipe out Chechen resistance ahead of a 26 March presidential election that he is expected to win.

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