Rebels in central Dagestan shot down a Russian Su-25 ground attack aircraft Thursday -- the first jet lost since the beginning of fighting. The pilot ejected to safety, the Interfax news agency reported.
The military wouldn't say how the plane was shot down. The rebels have previously hit several helicopters with gunfire and ground-to-ground rockets, but there have been no reports of the rebels firing anti-aircraft missiles.
The Russian forces seized the heights overlooking two villages held by militants in central Dagestan on Wednesday. But in fighting there and elsewhere, 10 Russian troops were killed and 50 were wounded, said Mikhail Arkhipov, a spokesman for the Russian joint command in Dagestan.
The death toll for the Russian troops has passed 100 since the fighting began a month ago. The Russians say hundreds of rebels have been killed, though the militants say the claim is exaggerated.
The Russian forces needed more than two weeks of fighting in August to drive out militants who came from breakaway Chechnya. But the rebels returned on Sunday, crossing the border at a different point and seizing a large swath of land in western Dagestan.
At the same time, the government troops are also trying to uproot a separate stronghold of Islamic militants in two villages in central Dagestan. Fighting continued for a 12th day Thursday.
The villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi have been contested throughout the fighting. The military has repeatedly claimed full control of the villages, but the militants continue to put up fierce resistance.
The rebels have been fortifying positions and establishing protected supply lines to ferry ammunition and reinforcements into Dagestan, military officials said.
President Boris Yeltsin on Tuesday scolded the military for its Â"sloppiness,Â" and many Dagestanis have expressed a growing exasperation with the military's failure to defeat the militants.
Russian artillery pummeled clay houses clustered in the valleys and combat jets shrieked overhead, firing rockets on suspected rebel positions. But Russian troops attempting to seize ground have encountered rebels emerging from their hideouts to repel the attack.
The government has said it doesn't want to repeat the mistakes made in the disastrous 1994-96 war with Chechnya, in which Russian forces launched an all-out military assault that resulted in heavy losses.
Unlike in Chechnya, Russian troops have received support from civilians in Dagestan, where the region's leaders and ordinary residents oppose Islamic militants. Some 25,000 Dagestanis have enlisted as volunteers to combat the rebels, but the authorities have been able to arm only 5,000, officials said.
Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo old FBI Director Louis Freeh in a telephone conversation Wednesday that Osama bin Laden, the accused mastermind of the bombings last year against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was behind the militants' offensive in Dagestan.
Rushailo said his ministry had information that bin Laden was the inspiration of the Islamic fighters, sending millions of dollars in financial aid to several Chechen warlords leading the Dagestan offensive.
Written by Nabi Abdulayev
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