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Militants Raid Russian Region of Ingushetia

Armed clashes erupted near Russia's separatist republic of Chechnya overnight Tuesday as militants stormed police targets in neighboring Ingushetia, killing almost 50 people and wounding dozens, officials said.

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Aftermath of blast at Ingushetia's Federal Security Service

The incursion was the most spectacular military operation by Chechen rebels outside the war-torn republic in years.

Forty-eight people, both civilians and policemen, were killed in the fighting in the southern Russian province of Ingushetia, Russia's Interfax news agency quoted a local police official as saying. Ingushetia's interior minister, Abukar Kostoyev, was among those killed, Interfax reported.

"Among the casualties are 18 policemen and 28 civilians," the Ingush interior ministry's top spokesman Yakhya Khadziyev said. The bodies of two dead rebels had been discovered and were being identified. He added that another 30 people had been wounded in the fighting.

Government posts targeted

Clashes between some 200 rebels and law enforcement authorities broke out in at least three towns in Ingushetia, which houses tens of thousands of refugees who fled the fighting in Chechnya and where many Chechen rebels have taken shelter. The fighters seized the Interior Ministry in Nazran, Ingushetia's largest city, and attacked border guards' posts there as well as in two villages near the border with Chechnya, according to regional emergency officials.

"They tried to take over the interior ministry and several of the regional police stations," Umar Sapraviyev, an official with Ingushetia's representation in Moscow told a radio station in the Russian capital.

Terrified residents spent the night cowering in their homes to sounds of automatic gunfire, mortars, grenade launchers, and helicopters flying overhead, witnesses told AFP news agency.

Russian authorities sent in troops shortly after dawn on Tuesday. The battles have now died down, though news reports said sporadic fighting continued.

Ingushetia's President Murat Zyazikov has announced a three-day mourning period beginning on Wednesday, Interfax reported. "This was aimed at destabilizing the situation" in the region, Zyazikov said.

Tough response

Chechnya's pro-Moscow interior minister blamed feared Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev for the attacks and vowed a tough response. "We have information that Basayev may have planned this operation and his men carried it out," Ali Alkhanov said. "We will

take all measures to defeat them."

There were also reports of prolonged gun exchanges in the province of Dagestan, also bordering Chechnya, but it is thought to be unconnected with the fighting in Ingushetia.

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