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#13 - JRL 7214
Chechnya PM says peace returning despite new clash
By Ron Popeski

MOSCOW, June 7 (Reuters) - Chechnya's pro-Moscow prime minister on Saturday praised an amnesty offer to separatists and said peace was returning to his region, but at least two members of the security forces died in a fresh clash in a major town.

One report said a top officer was among five people killed on Friday during an operation to root out rebels in Argun, Chechnya's second city, east of the regional capital Grozny. Rebels said they had killed up to 20 Russian troops.

Russian television said the operation was proceeding for a second day and showed servicemen in full gear pouring through streets and courtyards. Itar-Tass news agency said a similar operation was under way in two villages in western Chechnya.

The amnesty took effect on Saturday, a day after being approved by the State Duma lower house of parliament. Chechen Prime Minister Anatoly Popov described it as a key step to end a decade of conflict in the region on Russia's southern flank.

"I am not saying that it (the amnesty) will work," he told a news conference. "I am saying that its adoption is indisputably a positive development and a correct decision. We will only know over time whether it is working."

Popov said 2,000 to 3,000 rebels remained active. He expressed concern about Grozny, where he said groups of five to seven fighters were hiding in the ruins of shattered buildings.

The process of handing in weapons, Popov said, had been under way long before the adoption of the amnesty, with more than 40 rebels giving themselves up recently in a single day.

"We have peace already," Popov said. "But we do not have peace without terrorist acts. It is very difficult to say when there will be no more terrorist acts."


Popov said a policeman and a bodyguard died in Friday's clash as had eight rebels but Argun was now under control.

But Interfax news agency said Chechnya's deputy military commandant had been killed in an ambush in Argun, along with two other servicemen and a passing couple.

A rebel website, www.kavkazcenter.com, said the rebels had killed up to 20 Russian "occupiers and five collaborators" after surrounding a convoy.

Critics have ridiculed the amnesty which officials say does not cover Chechens guilty of serious violence but does cover at least 200 Russian troops, some in prison for abuses in Chechnya.

Guerrillas who hand in weapons by September 1 will be pardoned, but human rights groups say few will give themselves up without guarantees of protection.

President Vladimir Putin refuses to talk to rebel leaders and plans to stage elections for a local president and assembly following a referendum in March in which results showed overwhelming support for Chechnya remaining part of Russia.

A Moscow-based Chechen activist appealed to Chechen women whose relatives had been killed to stop launching suicide bomb attacks. Eighteen people died in an attack on a bus this week.

"I urge women intending to proceed with such an act of despair to stop," Salambek Maigov said in an appeal on rebel website www.chechenpress.com.

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