VLADIKAVKAZ - Clashes with rebels and land mine explosions in war-torn Chechnya killed four Russian soldiers and wounded 13 over the previous 24 hours, an official in the region's Moscow-backed administration said Thursday.
Federal forces fired artillery at suspected rebel hideouts and supply lines, many buried deep in the rugged mountains of southern Chechnya, and rounded up 120 people on suspicion of aiding the rebel fighters, the official said on condition of anonymity.
Three soldiers died and seven were wounded when rebels strafed federal positions with gunfire 15 times over the last day. Another soldier was killed when a military jeep he was riding struck a land mine.
Rebels also clashed with a group of Chechen police officers outside of the capital Grozny, killing two of the officers and wounding three.
While Russian forces greatly outnumber and outgun the rebels and control the predominantly Islamic region, the war has reached a standstill, with both sides bogged down in small-scale ambushes and attacks.
The Kremlin is eager to portray the situation as normalizing and has pushed for the tens of thousands of refugees that fled fighting to return home.
Humanitarian organizations say the refugees don't want to return, fearing for their safety. Refugees and human rights groups say officials have threatened to close refugee camps and are using intimidation, blackmail and other threats to persuade people to return.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that free will should be the "guiding principle" in returning refugees to Chechnya, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Officials have said that some 18,000 Chechen refugees are now living in tent camps in neighboring Ingushetia. The Interfax news agency quoted Igor Yunash, first deputy head of the Interior Ministry's Federal Migration Service, as saying the camps "may cease to exist by fall" if accommodation for the refugees can be found in Chechnya.
Those who don't want to return will be found "better lodging" in Ingushetia, Yunash said. "There is no pressure on refugees and there will not be any," he said.
Meanwhile, businessman Malik Saidullayev announced his candidacy for the Oct. 5 presidential election in Chechnya, which the Kremlin hopes will help legitimize the Chechen government and ease the attacks on Russian servicemen. He is the third candidate to officially enter the contest.
Saidullayev told a news conference in Moscow that that he dreams of a Chechnya whose citizens get the medical help and education they need and a time when "Chechen and Russian mothers no longer cry for the region's problems."
The millionaire said that he would not align himself with any political party and was not seeking Kremlin approval. Russia's main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, announced its support Thursday for Akhmad Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya's Moscow-backed administration and its acting president, in the October election, Interfax reported.
Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya in 1996 after a 20-month war with separatists, after which Chechnya became de facto independent and was plagued by lawlessness. Russian forces swept in again in September 1999 after Chechnya-based insurgents mounted incursions into neighboring Dagestan and after some 300 people died in apartment explosions that authorities blamed on the rebels.