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DATE=8/24/1999 TYPE=CORRESPONDENT REPORT TITLE=RUSSIA / DAGESTAN (L) NUMBER=2-253069 BYLINE=PETER HEINLEIN DATELINE=MOSCOW CONTENT= VOICED AT: INTRO: Russian forces say they have regained control of three villages in the southern Dagestan region that had been occupied by Muslim insurgents for more than two-weeks. Correspondent Peter Heinlein reports federal troops are said to be making progress against rebels still holed up in other settlements in the sparsely populated Dagestani mountains. TEXT: Russian defense ministry officials (Tuesday) said rebels have been cleared from several mountain hamlets that had been the focus of repeated air strikes and ground assaults in recent days. /// OPT /// The villages are located near a main road in the Botlikh district that crosses the border between Dagestan and breakaway Chechnya. /// END OPT // But there were conflicting reports about what happened to the Chechen-led insurgent force that seized the villages early this month. In a message posted Monday on the Internet, the rebels claim to have escaped. Federal forces call that claim -- disinformation. They say most of the separatists were killed, while others may still be hiding in the mountains. A rebel escape could be a further blow to government forces whose reputation was badly tarnished by their humiliating defeat at the hands of Chechen rebels in the mid-1990's. /// OPT /// A Dagestani man pressed into service to fight alongside federal troops told a V-O-A reporter the rebels villages captured by government forces Monday and Tuesday had been empty. The man, who asked not to be identified, said the rebels had only pretended to occupy the settlements to attract Russian bombs. He said air strikes had reduced the villages to piles of rubble. /// END OPT /// Meanwhile, Russian fighter jets and artillery have switched their focus to other nearby villages thought to be used as rebel hideouts. A Dagestani journalist who visited the Botlikh district (Tuesday) reported seeing thick plumes of smoke rising from villages targeted by Russian air strikes. There are no reliable casualty figures for the fighting. Each side this week reported losing between 40 and 50 men in the two-week conflict, and estimated enemy casualties at many times higher. But there has been no independent confirmation of the number killed and wounded, and western journalists have been advised to stay away from Dagestan because of the danger of kidnappings. (SIGNED) NEB/PFH/JWH/RAE 24-Aug-1999 09:18 AM LOC (24-Aug-1999 1318 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .

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