Amid signs that fighting in the Russian republic of Dagestan has spread into neighboring Chechnya, military officials for the first time Thursday conceded they faced serious problems in their bid to control a guerrilla rebellion in the troubled southern republic.
Russian planes continued rocket and bomb attacks in the area of seven Dagestani villages seized by Islamic militants who invaded from nearby Chechnya last weekend.
The Russian claims in recent days that soldiers of the Interior and Defense ministries and Dagestani police had forced the rebels to retreat appeared increasingly questionable, as a senior official in the regional government conceded that the Russian efforts were disorganized.
Several Chechen villages near the border with Dagestan were hit Thursday by Russian bombs and rockets, according to officials in Chechnya. The separatist republic of Chechnya remains part of Russia but has slipped out of Moscow's control since the 1994-96 Chechen war for independence.
Russia's most dangerous security crisis since the Chechen war has come at a bad time for the Kremlin, with President Boris Yeltsin's entourage desperate to stay in power beyond elections scheduled to be held next July.
The Dagestan conflict has a frightening resonance for Russians, the more so because the Islamic rebels are led by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who is perceived in Russia as a fanatical and threatening enemy. Basayev was one of the most ruthless and formidable rebel commanders during the Chechen war.
Russia's acting deputy interior minister, Lt. Gen. Igor Zubov, said Thursday the situation remained grave, with Russian forces facing challenges in operating against the guerrillas in mountainous terrain.
"We should be clearly aware that it is difficult to achieve an outright victory over guerrilla units," Zubov said.
Mukhu Aliyev, chairman of the People's Assembly of Dagestan, hinted that unless federal efforts became better organized, Russia risks losing part of Dagestani territory to the rebels.
"We have sufficient forces. What we need is better organization," he said. "We need better control. We must act more purposely. If we do this, there will be no changes to the map."
Yeltsin met with security officials to discuss the Dagestan emergency. He said Russia will reassert control over Dagestan "gradually, without haste, just as it was planned."
"Along with Chechnya, this is the most difficult sector," he said.
But on the sixth day of conflict, some military analysts noted disturbing echoes of the war in Chechnya, where Russia faced a humiliating defeat and lost control of the region when its troops were forced to withdraw.
Pavel Felgenhauer, military analyst with Sevodnya newspaper, said a lack of coordination for Russian operations could presage another military disaster for Moscow in the Caucasus.
"If today (rebel commander) Basayev seriously presses forward in Dagestan, the Russian military may be in for another disaster," he wrote in the Moscow Times, an English-language daily.
Russia has faced resistance and sometimes open rebellion in the Caucasus since it seized the region more than two centuries ago. The Russian areas are predominantly Muslim, and religion has often been the vehicle for rebellion.
Russian officials sought Thursday to give reassurances that the crisis will not turn into a second Chechen war. Unlike in Chechnya, where separatist fighters and the population stood together, Russian officials say there is considerable opposition in Dagestan to the Islamic rebels.
"We have the support of the leadership and people of Dagestan," Zubov said.
The Russians have shown reluctance to bomb civilian villages to dislodge the rebels, a strategy that was employed in the Chechen war but could undermine support for Russia's efforts in Dagestan. Zubov said the risk of civilian casualties made it more difficult to drive rebels out of three villages.
The Russians claimed to have destroyed two rebel bases, a truck carrying fighters and several anti-aircraft guns. They said 150 rebels had been killed. Russian officials have put their own losses at 11 killed and more than 30 injured.
The rebels concede only five dead among their forces, and claim they have pushed forward into the town of Botlikh and surrounded two brigades of Russian troops.