VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia – Russian troops and Chechen police battled for a second day with rebels in an eastern Chechen town Saturday in fighting that killed at least 20 people, even as an amnesty offer to rebels came into effect.
The amnesty, approved the day before by Russia's parliament, was touted as a step toward peace, offering immunity from prosecution to rebels who give up their weapons by Sept. 1.
But fighting persisted, particularly in Argun, a town in the eastern part of the war-ravaged republic where a convoy of Russian troops was ambushed by insurgents Friday, according to the Russian military.
A Chechen military police commander, Aud Yusupov, was killed along with three Russian servicemen and two civilians, while 14 rebels were killed and 10 others escaped, said a Russian military spokesman, Ilya Shabalkin.
Shabalkin said that by Saturday evening, the fighting was over.
Elsewhere in Chechnya, Russian forces fired artillery at suspected rebel positions in several places, including the suburbs of the capital Grozny. Rebels carried out 18 attacks across the country on Russian positions Friday and Saturday, killing five servicemen and wounding seven others, an official in the region's Moscow-backed administration said.
Also, three Russian soldiers were killed by a mine in the capital, Grozny, and another died in a firefight while searching for rebels in a nearby village, the official said on condition of anonymity.
The fighting came as an amnesty approved by the Russian parliament took effect.
The Kremlin has presented the measure as a key step toward peace in the region, but critics say it is meaningless because it denies clemency to anybody found to have tried to kill federal police and servicemen. It also does not apply to rebels or soldiers who have committed particularly grave crimes — including premeditated murder, rape and hostage-taking — or to foreigners.
Along with the rebels, the amnesty also applies to federal troops in Chechnya, who are accused by human rights groups of committing widespread abuses against civilians.
The head of the Moscow-backed Administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, said rebels have been handing in weapons and giving up separatist violence and predicted they would do so in greater numbers with the amnesty in place, the Interfax news agency reported. However, there were no reports of any rebels disarming Saturday.
The amnesty follows a March referendum in which Chechens approved a Kremlin-backed constitution that cemented the region's status as part of Russia while promising it limited autonomy that has yet to be defined. Liberal lawmakers and human rights activists say the constitution and amnesty will not bring peace as long as Moscow refuses to negotiate with rebel leaders.
Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya following a devastating 1994-1996 war that left separatists in charge, but they returned in 1999 after Chechnya-based militants invaded a neighboring region and the Kremlin blamed rebels for apartment-building bombings killed 300 people in Moscow and other cities.