At least six Russian troops killed in Chechnya
MOSCOW, July 4 (Reuters) Gunmen today killed at least six Russian soldiers and wounded about 20 in the deadliest rebel attack in Chechnya for weeks, local media said.
News agencies quoted a Defence Ministry spokesman as saying the soldiers' column of armoured personnel carriers and jeeps was 500 metres outside the village of Avtury when the rebels attacked with grenade launchers.
A rebel Web site (www.daymohk.org) reported that the attack, 30 km southeast of regional capital Grozny, was revenge for the mid-June killing of their separatist leader.
''It is too early to say which group took part in these events,'' a prosecutor from Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration told Interfax news agency.
Chechnya has been the scene of bitter separatist fighting since 1994, when the Kremlin sent troops to crush its self-declared independence.
After suffering defeat, Russian troops poured back into the mountainous region in 1999. Since then the Kremlin has largely subdued the rebels, handed power to loyalist Chechens and now likes to present the war as over.
''There are no more military operations in Chechnya, just outbursts of terrorism,'' President Vladimir Putin told a conference of non-governmental organisations today.
Russian losses in Chechnya are far lighter than at the height of the separatist warfare from 1994-1996 and from 1999-2000, but rebel attacks are frequent and several police and soldiers die every week.
In recent years the separatist war in Chechnya has evolved into a general Islamist uprising linked to other regions along Russia's mountainous southern border.
The rebel Web site said the death toll had been higher than officially reported. It said 20 soldiers had died, more been injured and that one APC and three jeeps had been destroyed.
''A column of enemy armour was destroyed as a result of a carefully planned act of retribution for the killing of President Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev,'' said the account, sourced to an email from a local commander called Khalid.
Sadulayev, a Muslim cleric who nominally headed the rebel movement, died in a Russian attack.
Web site voinenet.ru, which monitors media reports of deaths in fighting in the North Caucasus, said at least 21 people died, and 23 were injured in the week up to June 28.
The last attack as deadly as Tuesday's was when six soldiers were killed in mid-May.
REUTERS SHB RN2322