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New Russian leader vows to crush rebels

Muslim insurgents declare independence as Russia reports it regains seized villages in the republic of Dagestan.

In his first full day Tuesday as Russia's latest prime minister, Vladimir Putin faced a challenge bigger than the the political turmoil that delivered him to his job. He set out to avert a broader war with Islamic militants in a southern border region.

Muslim insurgents declared Russia's Dagestan republic an independent state on Tuesday and called for a holy war against the Moscow-aligned government. The fighting is Russia's worst security crisis since the disastrous, two-year war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, which ended in 1996.

A day after his appointment as acting prime minister, Putin was summoned to the Kremlin by President Boris Yeltsin to devise a plan to quell the uprising in Dagestan, which reportedly is being orchestrated by guerrilla leaders crossing over from neighboring Chechnya.

"Order will be established within the next few days," Putin declared.

Putin, who also was tapped by Yeltsin as his chosen heir to run for president in elections next year, must still be confirmed by the Communist-dominated Parliament, which is scheduled to meet Monday to consider his nomination.

Despite the widespread criticism in Russia of Yeltsin's decision to name the little-known Putin as his fifth prime minister in less than two years, his chances of a swift approval appear good, according to parliamentary leaders.

Fighting in Dagestan, a remote, mountainous republic on the Caspian Sea, intensified in the past four days as heavily armed Islamic commandos last weekend captured several key villages. Thousands of local residents have fled their homes.

Officials said Russian troops, backed by jet fighter-bombers, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery, regained two villages and surrounded guerrilla forces in two others Tuesday.

The bigger issue is not real estate, however, but anarchy.

Outgoing Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, whom Putin replaced after only 82 days in office, warned Monday that Russia could lose control of the Caucasus Mountains republic, as it did in Chechnya.

On Tuesday, Russian officials bolstered security in Moscow and other major cities against what they called an increased threat of terrorism _ another sign of the degree of concern Russian officials have for the situation in the south and their fear that it could spread.

Dagestan has long been the site of clashes between Russian forces and armed clans in a spillover from the fighting in Chechnya.

But the intensified fighting, combined with the uncertainty over Yeltsin's latest political maneuvers in Moscow, puts more pressure on the novice prime minister to quickly resolve the conflict.

Asked Monday by Yeltsin how his mood was as he took over his new job, Putin _ who began his career as a KGB officer _ answered curtly: "Combative."

Putin said Tuesday that Russia was confronted with "violations of the law and manifestations of terrorism" in Dagestan. "We cannot see such a state of affairs in Russia's as tolerable."

At stake is national pride. Russia, with its chronically ill economy and weakened army, does not want to see its southern territories nibbled away in guerrilla wars. Also at stake is petroleum. Dagestan and other unstable southern republics lay along the pipeline route to the oil-rich Caspian Sea.

Air force commander Anatoly Kornukov said at a Moscow news conference Tuesday that Russian forces would engage in search-and-destroy missions to root out the guerrilla fighters.

He said the militants should not be allowed to flee back into Chechnya, where they could regroup. "The gangs must be destroyed, as they take no pity on anyone," Kornukov said.

The insurgents, with a declared aim of establishing an Islamic state in Dagestan, are believed to number in the hundreds, though one press report from the region said as many as 1,500 reinforcements were being dispatched from Chechnya. Two well-known Chechen field commanders, Shamil Basayev and a Jordanian-born leader known only as Hattab, were leading the weekend assaults in Dagestan, according to refugees fleeing the area.

The number of casualties in the recent fighting was unclear. Military chief of staff Anatoly Kvashnin told Putin that Russian forces nearly had the situation under control. But Russian military officials made similar confident predictions at the outset of the war in Chechnya.

Russia and Chechen forces fought a war that ended when Russia unilaterally withdrew its troops in 1996 and Chechnya declared independence. Although Moscow continues to consider Chechnya part of the Russian Federation, it has been powerless to assert its will over the largely lawless province.

Chechen officials have denied that guerrillas being led and supplied from Chechnya have incited the fighting in Dagestan.

"One war is enough for us, we now want to create and construct rather than doom our people to destruction," Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said.