Upbeat Russian officials said their forces swept Islamic rebels from several high mountain hamlets in Dagestan today and all but ended the conflict in the remote southern region.
Russian troops, however, have not yet occupied the positions reported to be abandoned by the guerrillas.
Today was the date set by Vladimir Putin, Russia's new prime minister, to crush the revolt, and it was unclear to what extent the declarations of near-victory were designed to make it appear that his deadline had been met. A quick military success would boost the public standing of Putin, who has virtually no political track record.
Under heavy bombardment from artillery and the air, the rebels fled five hamlets whose names quickly became familiar to Russians during more than two weeks of intense fighting: Tando, Rakhata, Shodrota, Ansalta and Ashino. Tando was a particular source of frustration for the Russians in their campaign against the rebels. Russian forces were turned back twice trying to storm the village, and at least 20 soldiers died in the attempts.
The fighting broke out 18 days ago, after the guerrillas, led by hardened commanders from the neighboring region of Chechnya, took up positions in Dagestan. 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.
Russian officials said today that Dagestan's frontier district of Botlikh had been "cleansed" of Muslim fighters and that hundreds of rebels had retreated into Chechnya--although for several days the Russians had been saying they had the guerrillas surrounded.
A spokesman for the Russian press office in Dagestan declined to declare victory, but added, "So far everything goes successfully."
The rebels belittled the Russians' claims and said they withdrew from Tando and other hamlets at least two days ago. Nonetheless, there was no sign of a promised rebel counterattack. Rebel leader Shamil Basayev, who helped lead Chechnya's fight against Russia, was uncommonly silent.
At least 47 Russian troops died in the Dagestani conflict. Images of dead and wounded Russian troops from the first days of the encounter created a negative impression in Moscow, and commanders later put their emphasis on helicopter gunships, jets and artillery in an effort to reduce casualties. Russians put rebel losses in the hundreds, but the figure is impossible to confirm, and the rebels dismissed it.
For Moscow, the war in Dagestan was an unwelcome diversion from its current preoccupation: preparations for December's parliamentary elections and next year's presidential race. Initially, there was concern that a state of emergency would be declared because of the fighting in Dagestan, thereby delaying the balloting, but now those fears have evaporated.
Still, concern over unrest in the Caucasus is likely to persist as long as Chechnya's status is unresolved. "Until the situation in Chechnya has been normalized, it will have a negative effect in Dagestan as well," Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailov said.