Rough fighting at Russian border

Troops reportedly clash with rebels near hide-out of al-Qaida sympathizers

July 30, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Russian border troops say they engaged in unusually fierce fighting over the weekend with about 60 rebels along the mountainous border between Chechnya and Georgia, not far from a suspected sanctuary for al-Qaida sympathizers.

Trapped in remote mountain passes Saturday, the rebels tried to escape, said Anatoly Prokopiev of the Russian Federal Border Service. But the Russian troops encircled them, calling in aircraft to bombard them.

By the time the battle tapered off yesterday, 21 rebels were dead, Prokopiev said. Seven border guards were also killed.

Russian officials, who want the world to see the fighting in their rebellious Muslim republic of Chechnya as a front in the war on terrorism, said the fighters were well-equipped and included foreigners.

"We have all grounds to assume that this is a terrorist formation," said Prokopiev, speaking for the chief of the border service, Lt. Gen. Konstantin Totsky.

About 70 U.S. Green Berets were sent to Georgia in May to train the Georgian military in Western tactics and prepare it to fight insurgents - specifically, a small band of Muslim militants thought to be hiding in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. Washington plans to commit up to 150 troops at a time to the $64 million effort.

Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze said on national radio yesterday that the rebels, who encountered Russian troops in the Kerigo Gorge, had infiltrated Chechnya from the Pankisi. Both lie along the 90-mile border between Russia's Chechen republic and Georgia.

But Georgian border guards and European observers in the area said they hadn't see any unusual cross-border activity in recent days.

The confrontation in Chechnya's Kerigo Gorge, south of the town of Itum-Kale, appeared to be the largest in the border region since last July, when similar fighting was cut short by heavy rains.

The Pankisi is home to heavily armed gangs that engage in kidnapping and robbery; Georgian police and soldiers do not control it. Instead, it is ruled by warlords.

According to the Interfax news service, Russian military commanders in the Chechen capital, Grozny, said that 2,000 rebels are still mustered on the Georgian side of the border, poised to move north into Chechnya.

Prokopiev predicted there would be further clashes with rebels trying to cross the border to join Chechnya's long-running war with Moscow.

The rebels were too well-equipped to be ordinary bandits, Russian officials said. Some carried surgical kits and walkie-talkies. The Russians also said they captured a laser range-finder, a heavy machine gun used as an anti-aircraft weapon and eight shoulder-fired missiles.

Two captured fighters told the Russians that the main insurgent group in this weekend's fighting, led by a commander known by the single name "Hassan," included Muslim militants from several nations outside the region, including one from Japan.

Although there is constant warfare between Russian military forces and rebels in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, it mostly consists of skirmishes.

Rebels routinely stage ambushes and detonate remote-controlled mines, while Russian troops engage in so-called cleansing operations, in which they surround Chechen villages and round up suspected rebels. Many of those detained disappear and are later found dead.

Relatively large-scale clashes, such as those reported this weekend, are rare.

Yesterday's reports were impossible to verify. The conflict has long been marked by false or exaggerated claims by both sides, and the Russians have a strong interest in closely linking their war in Chechnya to the international war against terror.

By coincidence, Gen. Charles Holland, special operations commander of U.S. Forces Europe, met Saturday with Shevardnadze and Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze to assess the progress of the Green Beret training effort, "Train and Equip."

The meeting came around the time the clashes in neighboring Chechnya began.

"I was assured that the Georgian Defense Ministry and the U.S. military are working hard to put `Train and Equip' into practice," Holland told reporters.

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