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#3 - JRL 7066
Russian News Agency Retracts Report
February 17, 2003

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) - Russia's official news agency said Monday that 4,739 Russian servicemen had been killed in the breakaway republic of Chechnya in 2002, then retracted its report hours later, saying its casualty estimates matched that of the Defense Ministry.

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted military officials as saying 4,739 Russian military were killed, 13,108 were wounded and 29 missing in 2002, suggesting much higher losses than previous official data in the 3 1/2-year-old conflict.

The Defense Ministry issued an official denial. Hours later, ITAR-Tass substituted the story with a terse report offering the same toll as the ministry: 4,572 servicemen killed between the war's start in fall 1999 and Dec. 23, and 15,549 wounded.

A duty editor at ITAR-Tass refused to explain the contradictory reports. Earlier in the day, another editor had said that the agency stood by its initial version of high casualties.

Human rights groups have long accused the military of downplaying its losses in the war - Russia's second in Chechnya in a decade. Casualty figures are tallied through different government organizations and are impossible to verify independently.

The respected Soldiers' Mothers of Russia group, basing its estimates on information from wounded troops and soldiers' relatives, says about 11,000 servicemen have been killed and more than 30,000 wounded since the war's start, said the group's chief, Valentina Melnikova.

In the previous, 1994-96 conflict, 14,000 died, according to the group's estimate - well over twice the official toll of 5,500 dead and 700 missing.

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