Chechen rebels stormed a police station near the Chechen capital and faced off Monday against hundreds of Russian troops, who reportedly were preparing an air and artillery attack to drive them out.
The rebel assault on Argun late Sunday embarrassed the Kremlin and threatened the fragile peace effort in Chechnya. Russian and Chechen authorities signed a military agreement on July 30, but there have been nightly skirmishes since.Russian news agencies reported that four police officers were taken hostage at the station, run by the Moscow-backed Chechen administration. Independent observers saw no sign of hostages, however, and the rebels denied they were holding any.
Argun, nine miles east of the Chechen capital, Grozny, fell to Russian forces in March after months of bitter fighting that razed the town.
Early Monday, four Russian helicopter gunships circled low over the town. Rebel gunmen took up positions on rooftops and dug a trench near the police station. Some manned a heavy anti-aircraft gun and fighters carried belts of ammunition into the station.
Later, a column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles left Grozny for Argun, Russian news agencies reported. The ITAR-Tass agency said Russian commanders told civilians to leave Argun in preparation for possible air and artillery attacks.
The head of the rebels' military forces, Aslan Maskhadov, met with the commander who orchestrated the assault, Alaudin Khamzadov, and said the fighters had agreed to surrender. But it was unclear when - or if - that would happen.
"Whatever he says, I will do," Khamzadov said.
The rebels attacked the police station when Russian troops were holed up in their compound.
The rebels were armed with assault rifles, grenade launchers and vests filled with grenades. After setting up inside the police building, the rebels bought food from vendors in the town.
Local Chechens said there was shooting when the rebels entered the town. Reports of casualties could not immediately be confirmed.