Russian troops backed by tanks and artillery captured a strategic town in Chechnya today after heavy fighting, and Moscow denied that it was breaking an international arms treaty by increasing its forces in the breakaway region.
Russian troops seized the western town of Bamut, but were repelled by Chechen fighters when they tried to take more ground, Chechen commander Hamzat Gilayev said.
The Russian forces launched artillery and rocket strikes, Gilayev said. But he said his troops destroyed a Russian tank and two armored vehicles, and captured four Russian soldiers.
Russian forces control the third of Chechnya north of the Terek River. Moscow has said it wants to establish a security zone to prevent Islamic militants from attacking regions in southern Russia.
But the Russians appeared today to be invading parts of western Chechnya south of the Terek, a sign that Russia may try to occupy the entire region, which has been self-governed since a 1994-96 war for independence ended inconclusively.
Moscow said seven of its soldiers had been killed in the last 24 hours of fighting, while the Interfax news agency quoted Chechen leaders as saying they had killed 10 Russian soldiers in various clashes. The figures could not be confirmed.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov rejected U.S. criticism that Russia's deployment in the Caucasus violated the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which limits non-nuclear arms deployment. Ivanov said the 1990 treaty allowed for a temporary buildup, and said that Russia had notified the West of its regional military moves.