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Russian Soldiers Killed in Dagestan - 2002-01-19

A bomb has killed at least seven Russian soldiers in Dagestan, a small republic next to the region of Chechnya, where Russian troops have long been battling Chechen rebels. The blast comes as Russian leaders reject calls from a top United Nations official for a negotiated end to the conflict.

A remote-controlled bomb filled with nails and screws went off near a military truck carrying about 30 soldiers back to their base from a public bath house. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but a local police spokesman blamed it on Chechen rebels, saying it was an attempt to expand their war for independence into Dagestan.

At times, Chechen fighters have entered the neighboring republic to battle Russian troops there; large-scale incursions in the summer of 1999 led Moscow to send its forces back into Chechnya itself. They had failed to suppress the Chechens during an earlier conflict from 1994-to-1996.

Russian leaders insist that the Chechens are terrorists, who must be defeated militarily.

On Friday, officials in Moscow rejected calls from United Nations refugee agency chief, Ruud Lubbers, for talks with Chechnya's leader to seek an end to the war.

After spending four days in refugee camps in the region last week, Mr. Lubbers said, in his view, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov is not a terrorist, but an elected official who can play a key role in ending the war.

Mr. Lubbers drew a distinction between Mr. Maskhadov and rebel leaders, such as an Arab commander known as Khattab, who allegedly has links to the al-Qaida terrorist organization.

Various international leaders have repeatedly called on President Vladimir Putin to engage in serious dialogue to end the war, which takes its toll of Russian soldiers on a daily basis.

French President Jacques Chirac made such a call during a press conference with Mr. Putin in Paris last week.

But the Kremlin maintains the only thing to negotiate with the Chechens is their full surrender.