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Russia: 73 Chechnya rebels killed

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russia said its troops killed 73 Chechen separatist rebels during an operation to flush out militants in mountainous areas southeast of the regional capital Grozny.

Rebel sources reported clashes throughout much of the region on Russia's southern flank on Monday and said 20 Russian servicemen had been killed or wounded.

Russian news agencies quoted the office of the Kremlin's main spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, as saying the operation was the most comprehensive in Chechnya for months.

The reports said 73 rebels had been killed and 20 taken prisoner in the operation, completed just ahead of New Year celebrations -- Russia's biggest holiday.

Reported among the dead was Ruslan Chilayev, reputed mastermind of the downing of a Russian military helicopter last September in which 10 top officers were killed, including two generals. Agencies described Chilayev as the sixth most senior field commander in the separatists' command structure.

Earlier reports had spoken of troops sealing off villages in areas near the Argun gorge, where rebels often operate. Agencies said a member of the FSB domestic intelligence agency, which oversees Russia's second post-Soviet Chechen war, had died.

The rebel website said insurgents had clashed with Russian troops and staged ambushes in several districts. It also reported that four residents working with the pro-Moscow local administration, a favourite rebel target, had been killed.

Moscow says its forces control all of mainly-Muslim Chechnya, but rebels mount nearly daily attacks. Russian media portray life in Chechnya as returning to normal though 150,000 refugees in the adjacent region of Ingushetia refuse to return home out of fear of reprisals against male family members.

Itar-Tass news agency said 35 bus routes had been reopened in Grozny, devastated when Russian forces captured it last year.

Tass also said rebels had fired for the second time in as many days at a tree erected in Grozny to mark New Year for the first time since 1994. A young man was reported injured.

More than 3,000 Russian servicemen have died in the current campaign. Moscow withdrew troops in 1996 after defeat in a two-year war and granted the region de facto independence, but dispatched them again three years later.

Kremlin officials and rebel representatives met briefly in November in the first contacts aimed at a political solution but so far no concrete results have been achieved.

Western countries have toned down criticism of the Russian campaign in Chechnya since Moscow backed the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition following the September 11 hijacked airliner attacks in the United States.

But human rights groups accuse Russian troops of excesses, particularly during operations to flush out rebels.




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