MOSCOW -- Rebels in the separatist republic of Chechnya struck back forcefully against Russian positions yesterday, conducting a series of raids against towns the Russian command had declared secure.
The raids -- in which the rebels attacked the military command in two towns and a police checkpoint in a third -- forced Russian officers to admit to major setbacks in their 3-month-old campaign to reclaim rebel territory.
Chechen Vice President Vakha Arsanov told Russia's Interfax news agency that the rebels had retaken control of a string of towns in eastern Chechnya. He proclaimed the operations "the turning point in the second Chechen war."
Both sides routinely exaggerate their gains, and that assessment appeared overstated. But the Russian military -- which lost a war against Chechen separatists in 1996 -- confirmed three major rebel attacks.
The most serious occurred about seven miles east of the capital, Grozny, in the town of Argun, where about 300 fighters attacked the railway station and the military commandant's headquarters. Elite police were defending the facilities, Interfax reported, and fighting continued into the night.
Another group of fighters, dressed as civilians, drove up to a police checkpoint outside the town of Shali, about 10 miles south of Argun, and opened fire. The ensuing battle lasted for several hours before the rebels fled, officials said. Two Russian soldiers were reported killed.
Up to 500 Chechen fighters attacked the military command outside Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest city, which the Russians have made a showcase of their efforts to bring the republic back into the Russian fold.
The battle outside Gudermes was reported to be raging in several locations. One was the village of Dzhalka, where rebels had ambushed a water convoy; Russian troops were reinforced and heavy fighting followed, Interfax said.
All three cities had been declared "liberated" by Russian forces -- Gudermes on Nov. 10, Argun on Dec. 3 and Shali on Dec. 15. The raids are likely to be embarrassing for the Russian command because they took place far behind the current front lines in areas it had declared rebel-free and had turned over to civilian authorities.
Col. Valentin Astafyev, spokesman for the Russian command, struggled to put the best face on the attacks. He said, for example, that Russian troops were being constrained from using full force against the rebels in Argun for fear of civilian casualties.
"The only thing that aggravates the situation is that the militants are using peaceful civilians as a shield," Astafyev said in an interview broadcast on ORT television. "Therefore, in order to avoid unnecessary casualties among the town's peaceful population, no decisive steps have been taken so far."
In recent weeks, the Russians have encountered their first serious resistance from the rebels, who made only nominal efforts to fight back as Moscow's forces advanced south through Chechnya's northern flatlands. But analysts warned that the Chechens would put up a fight in Grozny as well as in the southern mountains.
After weeks of brutal air and artillery attacks, Russian troops began an offensive against Grozny on Dec. 25. The Russians have repeatedly claimed to have seized various districts of the city, but local reports suggest they have made only sporadic progress.
Russia called a pause in the Grozny offensive Friday, ostensibly to observe Orthodox Christmas and the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But analysts have suggested that the military needed the break to reconsider its strategy and regroup its forces.
The bombing halt appeared to hold for a third day in central Grozny yesterday, but heavy fighting raged elsewhere.
In recent days, the Russian military has concentrated its firepower -- and its propaganda -- on pushing toward the southern mountains, where rebels have their bases. The Russians have been besieging the town of Vedeno to the east and pushing through Dyuba-Yurt in the south -- both towns at the entrance to major mountain passes.
Yesterday, despite reports of inclement weather, the military news center said Russian forces had conducted 80 bombing runs against targets in the mountains.
Only about 400 people left the capital on Friday and Saturday, the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted the Ministry for Emergency Situations as saying. About 20,000 people are believed to be in the city, the ministry said.
Acting Russian President Vladimir V. Putin will allow international aid to help civilians weathering the conflict in Chechnya, Finland's prime minister said yesterday.
Paavo Lipponen, speaking at a summit of northern European leaders in Kiel, Germany, said Putin wrote him to say he would take the action -- fulfilling one of the West's key demands to ending the conflict.