Russians Bomb Chechens

Air strikes by Russian fighter jets and helicopter gunships on suspected guerrilla bases in breakaway Chechnya foiled a rebel invasion of Dagestan, military officials said Sunday.

Gangs of Islamic militants who set up camp in Chechnya near the Dagestan border suffered substantial losses in the Russian air and artillery strikes, a spokesman at the Russian force's press center said.

At least 140 insurgents were killed in the strikes, and four rebel camps were wiped out, according to the spokesman Mikhail Arkhipov. "Preventive strikes on bases and concentrations of gunmen frustrated their plans of a new invasion into Dagestan," he said.

No major operations were reported Sunday, though Chechen officials said Russian jets were sighted over the Chechen capital Grozny.

Islamic militants have twice crossed the Chechen border and seized villages in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan since early August, clashing with Russian troops.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Sunday blamed the fighting on international Islamic forces seeking control over oil in the Caucasus Mountains region. He also suggested those forces were behind a series of bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and other cities that have killed about 300 people this month.

Adam Vakhayev, commander of Chechnya's 5th national guard unit, insisted Sunday that Chechens were not to blame for the bombings. But he added, speaking in Grozny, that if Russian bombings continue: "We will give an adequate response and will move onto Russian territory."

Since the fighting in Dagestan broke out, Russian officials have estimated rebel casualties at 1,500, a figure that militants claim is widely exaggerated.

Military officials reported that a total of 243 federal troops have been killed in the fighting, the Interfax news agency reported Saturday.

The air and artillery strikes came as federal troops beefed up border controls around Chechnya because of the raids on Dagestan.

Putin ordered the borders strengthened last week. Extra personnel were sent to staff checkpoints and police were sent to patrol around the clock in schools, hospitals and day care centers in villages near the frontier.

Up to 100 sorties were flown over the weekend against targets in Chechnya, the press center said. Suspected rebel bases were also shelled by Russian artillery from Dagestan, Russian television reported.

The militants, many of whom are Chechens, want to declare an independent Islamic state in Dagestan and other Caucasus Mountains regions.

Chechen separatists drove out Russian troops in the 1994-6 war, winning de facto independence.

By Nabi Abdulayev