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Chechen rebels kill 6 soldiers

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MOSCOW (Reuters) — Chechen rebels rampaged through Russian-held towns in the separatist province, killing at least six Russian soldiers, reports from both sides of the conflict said Thursday.

Guerrillas fighting Moscow's armed forces in the region on Russia's southern rim have markedly stepped up activity the past week, killing 25 Russians and wounding 74, said Valery Manilov, first deputy head of Russia's general staff.

The latest attacks in four towns near Grozny left six Russians dead and 11 injured, Interfax news agency reported.

The rebel Web site kavkaz.org confirmed at least one attack, saying guerrillas clashed with crack OMON police just east of Grozny, in the town of Argun, killing six Russians.

Russian generals have repeatedly said their troops will crush rebel resistance, 10 months into the war. But a steady death toll has undermined such statements, as has a feud between two pro-Moscow Chechen leaders.

Manilov told a news conference he thought the rebels were trying to draw the world's attention to the conflict ahead of the G8 summit in Japan.

"The bandit formations have significantly increased their activity, this format has been seen before: Machine gun fire designed to worry, laying landmines in the roads and carrying out diversionary terrorist acts," he said.

"Fighters become active when important political events are expected ... in this case, the G8 summit."

Western countries have periodically criticized Russia for using excessive force in the war.

Manilov declined to give total Russian losses for the war, but adding up official figures puts them at more than 2,500 killed and nearly 8,000 wounded since troops engaged rebels last August in the region of Dagestan, to the east of Chechnya.

Interfax said five rebels were killed during a three-hour battle at Nozhai-Yurt in the southern mountains—where Russia acknowledges it does not control all areas. Manilov said 41 rebels had been killed in the last week.

Both sides exaggerate enemy losses.

A dispute between two Moscow-appointed Chechen leaders showed no signs of easing, although Russian news agencies said the Kremlin's special envoy to Chechnya, Viktor Kazantsev, was due to meet them at the Mozdok military base.

Moscow has appointed the region's top Muslim cleric, Mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, as civilian administrator and last week named Bislan Gantamirov, a convicted embezzler and former mayor of Grozny, as his deputy. It said the two would help kick-start a political process to end hostilities.

But Gantamirov, angered at Kadyrov's decision to dismiss some local police, marched armed men up to Kadyrov's headquarters this week, prompting the Mufti to accuse him of "armed mutiny." Gantamirov responded that Kadyrov had staffed his administration with "separatists and terrorists."

In the southern mountains, Russian attack jets flew nine combat missions over the past 24 hours, striking rebel targets, Interfax reported.

Russia sent troops into Chechnya last September, having lost control of the province in a rout at the end of a 1994-96 war. Moscow blamed the guerrillas for a series of bomb blasts in Russian cities which killed nearly 300, acts denied by rebels.