Russia plays down casualties


Russia scrambled yesterday to play down its losses in Chechnya after a news agency reported that 86 paratroopers were killed in a single battle last week, far more than previously admitted.

The AVN military agency cited Russian HQ sources as saying that 73 paratroopers and 13 officers were killed by Chechen rebels as their unit was all but wiped out in a four-hour battle in southern Chechnya.

The revelation comes as a blow to the Kremlin, which has tried to play down its losses in Chechnya, mindful that military reversals could undermine the popularity of acting president Mr Vladimir Putin, ahead of elections on March 26th which he is strongly favoured to win. A para-troop commander, Gen. Georgy Shpak, quickly dismissed the report and claimed only 31 soldiers were killed, "but there were no more casualties" of a similar order, he was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying.

AVN however gave specific details of the battle in which the Russian unit was heavily outnumbered by rebels serving under the feared Jordanian field commander, Khattab, near the mountain settlement of Ulus-Kert. The agency said just six paratroopers survived the onslaught.

Casualty numbers for a second Russian setback last Thursday, when a group of elite interior ministry troops were ambushed in Grozny, remain similarly contested. The Kremlin says 20 were killed, but some media have reported that up to 37 died in and after the ambush.

Combat was still raging in the southern mountains of Chechnya yesterday, as Russian forces tried to close in on rebels still holding out in two settlements near the strategic Argun Gorge, Komsomolskoye and Selmentauzen.