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Fighting rages in Chechnya despite looming talks
By Andrei Shukshin

MOSCOW, Nov 5 (Reuters) - Russian helicopter gunships rocketed Chechen separatist positions on Monday after rebels killed two Russian officers in a wave of weekend fighting that overshadowed prospects for planned peace talks.

Russian news agencies said the gunships pounded guerrilla hideouts in the North Caucasus region's mountainous south, killing at least a dozen people. Rebels attacked checkpoints and launched bomb attacks on Russian vehicles.

The fresh violence cast a shadow over a planned meeting between a senior aide to Chechnya's separatist President Aslan Maskhadov and President Vladimir Putin's envoy in southern Russia.

Moscow's agreement to hold talks with the rebels, tentatively planned for mid-November, came after months of stonewalling. The Kremlin's envoy, Viktor Kazantsev, says it wants the meeting to focus on the rebels laying down arms but both sides are still arguing over the agenda.

Interfax news agency reported an overnight raid on the local offices of the justice ministry in the centre of the capital Grozny, in which one official had been wounded.

It quoted the offices' head, General Bek Baskhanov, as saying some 15 guerrillas had assaulted his headquarters in an hour-long gunbattle. He said the building was seriously damaged and office computers wrecked.

Baskhanov complained he had to mount a rescue operation with colleagues living nearby as pro-Moscow Chechen police were apparently too scared to venture outside their checkpoints in the middle of the night.

"We did not get any help even from the guards at the mayor's office and other (pro-Moscow) institutions situated within 100-200 metres (yards)," he said.


The attack underscored the fragility of Russia's control over the separatist republic.

According to official figures, almost 3,500 Russian soldiers have been killed in Chechnya since Putin sent in troops to restore order there in October 1999, promising never to talk to the rebels. In previous fighting from 1994-96, tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians died.

The Grozny raid overnight followed 15 similar attacks on police and troops over the weekend and the bombing of two army vehicles. Interfax quoted Russia's North Caucasus military command as saying two police had been killed and four wounded.

Itar-Tass said the army had wiped out 19 rebels and captured another 32 in the past 24 hours.

It quoted the military as saying heavy helicopter gunships had strafed rebels with rockets in the Vedeno, Itum-Kale and Shatoi districts south of Grozny.

Tass said a rebel field commander close to Jordanian-born warlord Khattab, one of key rebel leaders, and two Arab mercenaries had been killed in a raid by Russian commandos.

Russians hold little sway over mountainous territories south of Grozny and rely on air attacks and lightning special operations by airborne commandos to mark their presence there.

Some Russian officials have expressed doubts that talks with Maskhadov would help Moscow appease the territory, pointing to persisting violence as an indication the rebel leader has little influence over warlords doing most of the fighting.

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