Chechen rebels, Russian troops killed in clash

Friday, August 22, 2003

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia -- Eight Russian soldiers and 12 rebels were killed in fierce fighting in southern Chechnya, an official in the war-ravaged region's Kremlin-backed administration said Thursday.

Russian special forces combed forests around the southern villages of Serzhen-Yurt and Avtury, where the fighting took place, and military helicopters shelled the routes along which rebels could have retreated after Wednesday's fighting, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Elsewhere in Chechnya, Russian military positions were attacked by rebels 19 times in the previous 24 hours, with one serviceman killed and eight others wounded, the official said. In the capital, Grozny, two soldiers were killed and four wounded Wednesday night when their truck hit a land mine, the official said.

Four years of war

Chechnya's rebels launch daily small attacks on Russian forces, who far outnumber the insurgents but have been unable to uproot them in nearly four years of fighting.

Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya in 1996 after a devastating 20-month war, leaving separatists in control. Russian troops returned in September 1999 after Chechnya-based insurgents mounted incursions into neighboring Dagestan and after some 300 people died in apartment-building bombings that authorities blamed on the rebels.

On Thursday, at least four Russian-allied Chechen militiamen were killed when their truck was ambushed by rebels in southern Chechnya's Vedeno district, the acting head of the district administration Khanali Gagayev told the Interfax news agency.

Also Thursday, prosecutors said an investigation into the downing of a Russian military helicopter in Chechnya last August, which killed at least 119 people, had been completed, Interfax reported.

Anatoly Arsentyev, the head of Russia's southern district prosecutor's office, said one of the men who carried out the missile attack, Doku Dzhantemirov, had been arrested and four accomplices identified. Arsentyev said the case had been sent to Chechnya's Supreme Court.

Investigators say the helicopter was shot down with a portable shoulder-launched Igla missile -- similar to the one involved in the recent international sting operation that resulted in the arrest of an alleged arms dealer in the United States.

Also Thursday, American actress Angelina Jolie, a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, met with Russia's deputy foreign minister to discuss the plight of tens of thousands of refugees from the Chechnya fighting, many of whom live in difficult conditions in the neighboring Ingushetia region.

Jolie and Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov discussed the Chechen refugee situation and potential cooperation between Russia and the UNHCR on the matter, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Jolie plans to visit Ingushetia and other parts of the North Caucasus region before leaving Russia on Sunday, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

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