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Police Kill 20 in North Caucasus Skirmishes

Police said Friday that Russian forces had killed at least 20 insurgents in intense gunbattles over the last two days.

"According to our latest figures, about 20 insurgents have been killed, but the number of dead could be higher," said a police official in Ingushetia's largest city, Nazran.

Violence is growing in the patchwork of southern republics — including Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia — that make up the North Caucasus. Islamist militancy overlaps with the activity of criminal groups and clan and ethnic rivalries.

An Ingush police officer stationed close to the site of Friday's clash said Russian forces had fired at rebel positions from helicopters during an intense battle. He added that the death toll included 10 from Thursday in an operation in a mountainous area near the border with Chechnya.

State television Channel One showed armored cars and camouflage-clad forces priming for battle in snowy fields.

Unofficial Islamist web site Kavkazcenter.com said several dozen "infidels," or ordinary citizens, were also injured in the Thursday shootout and placed in local hospitals.

Ingushetia's presidential press service said four civilians died and two others were injured.

Svetlana Gorbakova, of Ingushetia's Investigative Committee, said 14 bodies of suspected insurgents had been found after the fighting, but presidential spokesman Kaloi Akhilgov put the toll at 18. It was unclear whether the civilians' deaths account for the discrepancy.

"Militants who terrorized local villagers have been eliminated ... Our goal is to restore stability in the republic and in the Caucasus in general," Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov said on state television.

Security measures have been strengthened to prevent the violence from crossing over into Chechnya, President Ramzan Kadyrov said Thursday.

In an interview with state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta on Friday, Kadyrov said only several dozen militants remained in Chechnya, though analysts have said the figure is much higher.

Vladimir Zakharov, of Moscow's Caucasus Research Center, said rapidly increasing violence in Ingushetia was "now affecting the entire North Caucasus and moving at an alarming rate."

Local leaders in Ingushetia, with a population of some 300,000, say poverty and unemployment are fueling the insurgency, though Russia's security services say links to al-Qaida also play a part.

(Reuters, AP)

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