RUSSIAN forces were last night shelling a mountainous area close to conflict-scarred Chechnya in an attempt to flush out a group of rebels led by the Chechen separatist leader Doku Umarov.
A source with the militant group said that large numbers of Russian troops had surrounded Umarov and his forces in a forest near the village of Yandi-Katar on the border between Ingushetia and Chechnya.
Helicopters were patrolling the area and artillery forces were shelling the forest for the third day.
Umarov's importance to the rebel movement increased in July after warlord Shamil Basayev, the most feared of the rebels, was killed. Umarov's death or capture would be a significant blow to the separatist movement, which has been battling Russian forces for most of the past dozen years.
Chechen rebels began fighting Russian forces in 1994. That war ended after 20 months when the militants fought the Russians to a standstill, forcing them to agree to a pullout that left the small, largely Muslim region de facto independent.
Russian forces stormed back into Chechnya in October 1999. Major offensive actions died down after about two years as Russian forces took firm control of most of the republic.
However, rebels remain strong in Chechnya's mountainous south and regularly clash with Russian forces in small skirmishes, using booby-trapped explosives.