Russian troops shell suspected rebel hide-outs

GROZNY, Russia - The Russian military claimed Monday that up to 160 insurgents were killed over the weekend in Chechnya, as federal artillery hammered parts of the republic after warnings of a possible rebel offensive.

The rebels said they killed 11 Russian servicemen with a remote-controlled mine that struck a military convoy just south of the capital Grozny on Monday. Abi Dar, commander of the unit that carried out the attack, said it damaged an armored personnel carrier and three trucks and downed nearby trees.

The military command confirmed the convoy was hit, according to Russian news reports, but gave no information about casualties.

The casualty claims from both sides could not be independently confirmed. Both Russian officials and Chechen fighters routinely exaggerate the other side's losses.

Russian troops feared a major rebel assault on Sunday, the anniversary of a 1996 battle in the capital Grozny that led to Russia's withdrawal from Chechnya and ended the previous war.

But no major rebel attacks over the weekend were reported. Instead, Russia's military bombarded a forested area near the town of Gudermes. The military said it was thwarting a Chechen advance by firing on rebel hide-outs.

Russian television on Monday showed federal troops firing salvos of 10-foot-long Grad missiles after a commander called out coordinates of a suspected base.

The massive firepower was also directed at some suburbs around Grozny, the Urus-Martan region in central Chechnya and the Nozhai-Yurt region in the west, the military said.

Rebel leaders denied major losses over the weekend.

Even pro-Moscow Chechen leaders questioned whether the rebels planned to attack amid the tight security.

''All speculation about acts of revenge were coming from the Russian forces themselves,'' said Grozny Deputy Mayor Said-Ali Umalatov.

Tight security imposed by the Russian forces over the past few weeks has paralyzed work on restoring the city's electricity, natural gas and water supply systems, Umalatov told The Associated Press.

Grozny was mostly quiet on Monday, with only occasional burst of gunshots during the night.

The military command said Monday that the head of the Chechen National Security Service, Ibragim Khultygov, had surrendered to federal forces in the Achkoi-Martan district of central Chechnya. It was unclear what prompted the move, though Russian media reported that he recently split from Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's fractured command.

The Russian government said it began paying pensions Monday to Chechen retirees for the first time in more than a year. The head of the Chechen Pension Fund, Zalmat Zalzayev, told the ITAR-Tass news agency that the Russian government had disbursed $7.9 million to pay pensions for May, June and July to Chechnya's 136,000 pensioners.

Pensions and other social welfare payments stopped or lagged dramatically after Russian troops pulled out at the end of the last war in 1996, leaving Chechnya's political status undecided.


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