Russian forces appeared to be making headway against Muslim guerrillas in the southern region of Dagestan today, but an array of confusing reports made assessment of their progress difficult.
Reports this evening from Dagestan said Russia had driven rebels from the mountain village of Tando, which overlooks the strategic town of Botlikh. But rebel spokesmen said that the guerrillas had withdrawn from the Botlikh area and "deployed in other locations to undertake new tasks."
Later, however, Defense Ministry officials told the Russian Tass news agency that Tando was still in guerrilla hands. Tass described the fighting as "sniper against sniper, grenade launcher against grenade launcher."
For more than two weeks, Russia has been battling the guerrillas in Dagestan, who are being led by hardened commanders from the neighboring region of Chechnya. The Chechens, who fought for independence from Moscow and won virtual autonomy three years ago, want to include Dagestan in a wider Islamic state in the Caucasus region.
Shortly after the conflict broke out, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said government troops would crush the revolt in Dagestan by this Tuesday. Such a quick battlefield victory would be a feather in the cap of Putin, whom President Boris Yeltsin has designated his preferred successor. But military officials have warned that it could take months to suppress the guerrillas, because they are mobile and can find safe haven in Chechnya.
While details remain unclear, the reports of a rebel withdrawal from the Tando area indicate some change in the battlefield situation, which was stalemated over the weekend.
Rebel commander Shamil Basayev told reporters that "Tando is of no strategic importance" and that the guerrillas "are capable of launching military action from where they are not expected." He has said that the rebels would launch a new offensive to meet the challenge posed by Russian bombers and helicopter gunships.
To hold down casualties on their side, Russian officers have been relying on air power rather than ground combat. Their aircraft have been pounding the mountainous, dusty terrain above Botlikh for about a week. At least one previous effort by Russian ground troops to take Tando in the past week was rebuffed.
The Russians said they inflicted heavy losses on the rebels in Tando--140 dead in just a day--but that figure could not be independently verified. About 50 Russian soldiers and Interior Ministry police have died in the Dagestan fighting, according to military officials.
Col. Yevgeny Ryabtsev, a Defense Ministry spokesman, scoffed at the rebels' claim of regrouping. He said it was "pure fantasy," because the guerrillas are surrounded. Russian forces control crossings along the Chechnya-Dagestan border and have blown up roads that the rebels have used to reinforce their positions, he said.
"Not all the bandit forces have left the republic of Dagestan," he said. "They will, on the one hand, melt away in small groups into the Chechen republic, and on the other hand, some will remain here to carry out various types of armed provocations."