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Russia Premier, Muslim Leader Discuss Dagestan

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From Times Wire Services

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin met Saturday with a Muslim leader to seek ways to defuse the situation in the republic of Dagestan, where Russian forces are fighting Muslim insurgents.

Putin, a former KGB spy whose appointment was approved by parliament Monday, discussed the Dagestani conflict with Ravil Gainutdin, a leader of Russia’s Muslim Council of Muftis, a spokesman said.

For the past two weeks Russia has been fighting separatists led by warlords from neighboring Chechnya in difficult mountain terrain in Dagestan. The rebels want to create an independent Islamic state in the Caucasus region of Dagestan and Chechnya. The republic of Chechnya, where rebels fought a 1994-96 war for independence, remains part of Russia but has since slipped out of Moscow’s control.

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“The meeting was very fruitful, and we reached understanding on all questions,” the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Gainutdin as saying. “We agreed that it is necessary to limit the spread of weapons among the people of Dagestan and protect the peaceful population from getting sucked into war.”

An Interior Ministry spokesman said Saturday that 20,000 Dagestanis had expressed their willingness to fight the separatists and that some had been given arms to join in patrols and other operations.

But Russian officials are wary of providing too many weapons to Dagestanis, fearing that such a move could worsen overall security.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin’s spokesman said Saturday that Moscow was seeking to restore order in the region while losing as few Russian lives as possible.

Fighting inside Dagestan continued with Russian forces concentrating on air attacks against rebels on the ground, a Defense Ministry spokesman said.

“The joint forces of the Interior and Defense ministries continued to carry out preparatory measures for the decisive phase of the anti-terrorist operation,” he said.

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He said the Russian forces had killed about 100 rebels in a single day of fighting.

Russian officials say as many as 700 rebels have been killed in the conflict, but the rebels say the figure is hugely exaggerated. Moscow has acknowledged losing about 40 soldiers.

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