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By John Daniszewski Los Angeles Times moscow About 200 Chechen rebels clashed Thursday with Russian army troops backed by bombers and helicopter gunships in a rare large-scale battle in Russia’s three-year war in the separatist republic. A fierce firefight broke out at 5 a.m. in the village of Galashki, in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. Fourteen Russian servicemen -- including two crew members of a helicopter that was shot down -- and an undetermined number of Chechen fighters were killed during the six-hour battle, Russian officials said. Among those also reported killed were a civilian woman and a British free-lance cameraman who had apparently been traveling with the rebels. Some Russian officials claimed that as many as 40 rebels had been killed, but a policeman and journalist at the scene said by telephone that they saw only four or five bodies of slain rebels in the streets of Galashki. The battle was unusual because it took place in Ingushetia, to the west of Chechnya. The Chechens, thought to be led by warlord commander Ruslan Gelayev, apparently had left the Pankisi Gorge area of Georgia several days ago, crossed north into Russia, and had made their way on foot across 60 miles of forest and mountains toward Chechnya before encountering any serious resistance from the Russian forces. Senior Lt. Ruslan Khashiyev, of the Sunzha district police department of Ingushetia, said Russian forces had heard of the Chechen group’s advance and had set up an outpost to wait for them in Galashki, a village just nine miles from the Chechen border. When the Russians found themselves under attack, they immediately called for reinforcements and air support, but they were overrun by the Chechens. “The rebels easily sliced through them and went into the village,” Khashiyev said. “When two helicopters appeared in the sky, the rebels shot one down with an anti-aircraft rocket. The crew burned to death during the crash.” A local woman, Roza Khakiyeva, said she woke up early in the morning and heard shots and explosions. “I looked out the window and saw armed men running in the street toward the bridge. I could see an armored car drive up to the village when suddenly it stopped, caught fire and started falling over a cliff off the road.” She hid in her home. “This is the first time I saw war. It was horrible,” she said. “I never thought it could come here to our village. It is very, very scary.” Cut off by heavy Russian fire from using a bridge over the Assa River to flee the village, the Chechens instead forded the icy stream and made good their escape, Khashiyev said. Afterward, Russian bombers began dropping explosives on the surrounding forest and police conducted house-to-house searches in the village. A defense analyst, Alexander I. Zhilin, who writes for the Moscow News weekly, said many things about the operation did not add up. “The biggest question is how the military dares to let a couple of hundred of rebels into a big, densely populated village,” he said. “How come the rebels crossed our border and walked unopposed for dozens of miles until they basically reached the border of Chechnya?”

Russians Clash with Chechen Rebels in Small Border Town