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Russian troops blockade Grozny

Suspected rebel rounded-up
A suspected Chechen fighter surrenders to Russian troops  


SLEPTSOVSK, Russia -- Federal troops are blockading Chechnya's capital Grozny to sweep districts for suspected rebels,

The move follows a day of fighting in which Russian forces reportedly killed more than 30 rebels in separatist Chechnya in intensive overnight shooting.

Fourteen Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen servicemen were also killed, including seven who died when their truck hit a landmine, Reuters reported.

On Tuesday, civilians were barred from entering and leaving Grozny as additional troops arrived for the operation.

The forces came from Chechnya's second-largest city Gudermes and the nearby base at Khankala, an official in the Moscow-backed Chechen administration said.

Military officials said troops had exchange fired with rebels on at least 10 occasions in the previous 24 hours, with the fiercest clashes occurring in Grozny. Casualty figures remained unclear.

Russia had deployed helicopter gunships to bottle up separatists inside their bases in Chechnya's southern mountains, and help repulse a rebel attack on the main base of government forces in the province.

On Monday a 20-strong rebel group were killed by helicopter gunships while attacking Russia's main Khankala base, the Itar-Tass news agency said.

An additional 10 rebels were killed and eight border guards injured during almost two days of fighting in the Sharo-Argun gorge area, Interfax revealed.

Federal troops and border guards had mounted a special operation on Monday to blockade rebels in the Sharo-Argun gorge area on Chechnya's southern border with Georgia.

The regional administration's press service told Interfax news agency that 10 rebels had been killed and eight border guards injured during almost two days of fighting.

"All (the rebels') attempts to escape the encirclement failed," Interfax quoted Russian officials as saying.

But the Russians also suffered losses. On Monday, four Russian troops and three Chechen police officers were killed when their truck hit a mine in Grozny.

Later three Chechen police officers were killed when their Zhiguli patrol car was shelled by rebels, the official said.

Two servicemen were killed in Grozny when their military truck hit a mine apparently planted by rebels.

Just outside Grozny rebels blew up an armored personnel carrier, killing two servicemen and wounding several, the official said.

The escalation in fighting follows the weekend's killing of a top Chechen warlord, Arbi Barayev, accused of masterminding serial kidnappings.

He was the first separatist field commander to die in Russia's high-profile campaign to eliminate rebel chiefs.

The rebel website kavkaz.org reported on Tuesday that Barayev's nephew, Movsar Barayev, had replaced him.

Meanwhile, 33 Chechen refugees, on hunger strike to demand peace talks to end the 20-month conflict, said they were determined to continue their fast to the bitter end.

Police said they were probing the death of two civilians in Chechnya's third-largest town of Argun, who were gunned down by masked assailants in a refugee centre.

An upsurge in clashes in the separatist republic has coincided with the emergence of a peace hunger strike movement by refugees clamouring for talks between the rebel leadership and Moscow.

Waves of refugees poured into the border town of Sleptsovsk on Sunday to demonstrate their support for the hunger strikers, some of whom are already in hospital suffering from exhaustion.

RIA news agency quoted Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's chief spokesman on Chechnya, as saying talks with separatist Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov were "useless."

And he dismissed the protest by refugees living in tent cities in the neighbouring Russian republic of Ingushetia as a rebel stunt designed to win public sympathy.

Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya in humiliation after a 1994-96 war against separatists but returned in October 1999 to attempt a further crackdown. Moscow's shaky control over most of the breakaway territory is punctured by almost daily attacks.





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