President Vladimir Putin praised staff members of the Federal Security Service (FSB) on February 28 for “successful special operations” in the North Caucasus this year, stating that that more than 200 rebels have been killed so far in 2005, RIA Novosti reported. “The operational capabilities of this department that have been improved recently should result in better performance,” Putin told FSB officers, who were part of a group of senior officials from different agencies meeting with the president in the Kremlin. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov evinced similar confidence on March 1, telling German and Italian reporters in Moscow that there is “no enemy” for the Russian army to fight in Chechnya nowadays, Itar-Tass reported. “The Defense Ministry has only 30,000 servicemen in the combined federal forces in the North Caucasus,” Ivanov said. “These are servicemen of the Main Intelligence Department of the General Staff [GRU], the 42nd motorized infantry division and two battalions staffed with local residents.”
The Russian president’s and defense minister’s comments came against the backdrop of a large-scale military operation in Chechnya’s southeastern mountainous region. Kommersant reported on February 28 that the battle started in the Nozhai-Yurt district on February 24 – a day after the expiration of the unilateral ceasefire announced by Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov. An ambush killed three local policemen and wounded two on the outskirts of the village of Alkhan-Khutor. The search for the attackers turned into a large-scale operation that, according to Kommersant, involved more than 1,000 men drawn from nearly all the combat units present in Chechnya. The operation also expanded geographically beyond the Nozhai-Yurt district to include the Vedeno, Itum-Kala and Shatoi districts.
Russian military and pro-Moscow Chechen officials claimed that they had a group of rebels – between 30 and 40 men according to some estimates; up to 90, according to others – surrounded in a wooded area between Nozhai-Yurt and Dagestan’s Novolaksk district. Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov said on February 25 that it was possible that Dagestani Islamist leader Rappani Khalilov and Akhmed Avdorkhanov, head of Aslan Maskhadov’s security service, were among the surrounded militants. Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov told Interfax on February 27 that security forces were using aircraft to search for rebels along the Chechen-Dagestani border. He also said that the possibility Khalilov and Avdorkhanov would “slip out” of the encirclement could be “completely excluded.” It is worth noting that Ramzan Kadyrov announced last May that Maskhadov himself and Khalilov were among separatist fighters who had been surrounded in Chechnya’s Kurchaloev district.
In any case, Kadyrov told Interfax on February 28 that ten militants had been killed and eight seriously wounded as a result of the federal operation in Nozhai-Yurt. He added that among the casualties were “people of various ethnic origin, including foreigners.” Three policemen were killed on the first day of the operation, Kadyrov said. The separatist Kavkazcenter website, for its part, reported on February 28 that four Russian troops were killed and several wounded in clashes in Nozhai-Yurt on February 27 while one was killed and two were wounded in fighting in Itum-Kala. Agence France-Presse quoted a Chechen Interior Ministry source on March 1 who gave similar casualty statistics. Kavkazcenter claimed in a report posted on February 25 that 12 “Kadyrovite bandits” had been killed and 10-15 wounded in fighting in the Nozahi-Yurt district.