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Russia stepping up attacks on rebels

Russia intensified its air and ground offensives Wednesday against Islamic separatists in the southern Caucasus Mountains.

Russian politicians in Moscow insisted the rebels in Dagestan had been encircled near the western border with breakaway Chechnya and within days would be swept from the villages they invaded last weekend.

Russian military leaders in Dagestan also said they were making progress in beating back the rebels, who are numbered at 1,200 by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, the commander of Russia's Interior Ministry troops. The count doubles previous estimates.

Russian planes bombed the Tando settlement, one of the rebel strongholds.

Russia's ORT television showed pictures of helicopter gunships blasting Tando with rockets and Russian tanks firing at rebel positions.

"Our forces have tightly encircled (the rebels) and are now engaged in mopping-up operations," said First Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Kolesnikov.

Acting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was appointed Monday, also said that the situation was under control and that there would be no need to introduce a state of emergency.

Members of Parliament's upper house, however, criticized Putin for not doing enough to drive out the insurgents.

The Dagestan fighting is the largest challenge to Russian authority since the 1994-96 war with Chechnya, in which tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed.

Wary of repeating the mistakes and high casualties of that war, Russia has proceeded cautiously against this uprising, amassing troops and launching attacks mostly from the air.

On Wednesday, a prominent Chechen warlord said that he was leading the rebels and that his army had shot down seven Russian helicopters and one airplane. Russia has acknowledged losing only two helicopters.

The warlord, Shamil Basayev, said that the rebels were fully entrenched in several villages and that more fighters were arriving daily to augment his force.