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Chechen Rebels Claim Downing of Russian Helicopter - 2002-09-26

In Russia, military officials say Chechen rebels have shot down a Russian helicopter in the republic of Ingushetia, near the Chechen border, killing its two crew members. Russian military and media reports say at least seven other Russian soldiers and more than 30 Chechens have died in heavy fighting Thursday.

Russian army officials say a portable anti-aircraft missile brought down the military helicopter near the village of Galashki in Ingushetia.

The officials say that after fierce fighting between Russian forces and Chechen rebels near the village, the Russian troops were able to beat back the rebels.

Ingushetia, which has absorbed hundreds-of-thousands of Chechen refugees in sprawling tent camps, has been largely sheltered from the fighting in neighboring Chechnya.

A Kremlin statement said the rebels had come from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, near Chechnya, but there is no independent confirmation of the claim.

Russia has long accused Georgia of allowing Chechen rebels to use the gorge as a staging ground for attacks and Russian officials recently threatened to launch military operations on Georgian territory, if the Georgian government was not able to stop the rebels.

Georgia rejects the Russian claims and criticism, and says it is successfully rooting out rebels from the gorge.

Officials in Georgia also have sought help from the United States in resolving the issue, suggesting that Georgia, Russia and the United States could hold talks aimed at reducing tensions over the Pankisi Gorge.

But, so far, there is no sign Russia would be willing to participate in such negotiations.