Russians say its inflicts heavy casualties on rebels

GROZNY, Russia - Russian officials said Sunday that scores of rebels were killed in artillery strikes outside the capital Grozny, as Russian soldiers were on high alert after warnings of a possible rebel offensive.

The bodies of 22 dead militants were found at the scene of the strikes, the village of Petropavkovsk northeast of Grozny, the Interfax news agency said. It suggested the number of casualties could be much higher, citing Russian officials as saying that a band of up to 100 rebels had been destroyed.

The claim was denied by a prominent separatist, Movladi Udugov.

Both Russian officials and Chechen fighters routinely exaggerate the other side's losses, and the casualty figure could not be confirmed. There had been no previous reports of a large group of rebels converging in the village, and the alleged death toll appeared extremely high.

The report came as Russian soldiers were put on high alert in their fortified defenses in Grozny. Russian forces have been warning for days that rebels may be planning a new offensive on Sunday, which marks the anniversary of the day in 1996 that the insurgents retook Grozny from Russian troops in the previous Chechen war. It began a counteroffensive that forced Russia's withdrawal.

Grozny's streets were quiet and virtually empty of civilians. There were no reports of major attacks in Chechnya.

But to the east, in the republic of Dagestan, two women were killed and three passers-by injured when a bomb planted in a car exploded in the town of Khasavyurt, a duty officer with the Dagestani Interior Ministry said.

Rebels also opened fire on a Russian military helicopter in Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya to the west, injuring one Russian soldier, Russian news agencies reported.

The Russians have increased security at checkpoints and administrative buildings and tightened travel restrictions on Chechnya's roads to keep the rebels from sneaking into Grozny.

The rebels fled Grozny in February after weeks of heavy artillery shelling and airstrikes that left the city devastated. The Russian military says the rebels are now too scattered to pose a serious threat.

Previous predictions of rebel attacks on important anniversaries have gone unfulfilled, and Udugov, the Chechen rebel's chief ideologist, said the rebels have no plan to attack on Sunday.

Russia sent troops back into Chechnya after rebels twice raided Dagestan a year ago, and after apartment bombings in Russia that killed some 300 people. Moscow blames Chechens for the bombings, a charge the rebels deny.


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