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DATE=8/8/1999 TYPE=CORRESPONDENT REPORT TITLE=RUSSIA /CAUCASUS (L) NUMBER=2-252578 BYLINE=PETER HEINLEIN DATELINE=MOSCOW CONTENT= VOICED AT: INTRO: Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin is flying to the northern Caucasus region, where security forces are said to be battling suspected Muslim insurgents near the border with breakaway Chechnya. V-O-A's Peter Heinlein in Moscow reports preparations are underway for a major military operation against the rebels. TEXT: Russian news agencies say Prime Minister Stepashin decided to go to the Caucasus Republic of Dagestan Sunday, after a phone conversation with President Boris Yeltsin. Army Chief of Staff General Anatoly Kvashnin and the commander of interior ministry troops also flew in to direct what is being described as a "large-scale operation" against Islamic militants surrounding several villages along the border with Chechnya. The Interfax news agency quotes Mr. Stepashin as saying the situation has worsened in the region and that three or four mountain villages are under control of what he calls "criminals". The prime minister said Russia's disastrous war in Chechnya in the mid-90's had scared many people. Still, he says he is not scared. Mr. Stepashin played a key role in the Chechen War, serving at times as chief of domestic intelligence, interior minister and justice minister. Tens of thousands of people died in the fighting, most of them Chechen civilians. The war ended with the withdrawal of Russian troops and de facto independence for the region. News reports Saturday said Russian troops, backed by helicopter gun ships, had attacked militant formations around Botlikh -- a tiny village in the remote mountainous region near the Chechen border. Villagers were reported fleeing Sunday, but the militants were said to be digging in, armed with anti-tank and anti- aircraft weapons. Exactly who the militants are remains unclear. Russian sources say the gunmen crossed into Dagestan from Chechnya and include groups of Arab speakers and fighters from Central Asia. Chechen officials have denied there was any such border crossing, saying that such a movement would be suicidal because of the heavy buildup of Russian troops in the area. Prime Minister Stepashin Saturday ordered an additional one thousand police officers to Dagestan, along with a battalion of interior ministry troops and a motorized infantry brigade. These are in addition to several thousand soldiers and paramilitary forces already in the region. Estimates of the number of Islamic militants around the villages ranges from about 200 to as many as two thousand. These estimates cannot be independently confirmed. Few western journalists dare to venture to the northern Caucasus region, where kidnappings for ransom have become commonplace. Russia's interior ministry says more than a thousand kidnappings have taken place in and around Chechnya in the past two and a half years. (signed) Neb / pfh / dw / wd 08-Aug-1999 06:55 AM LOC (08-Aug-1999 1055 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .

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