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Armed clashes in Russia's Dagestan, 21 die

MAKHACHKALA, Russia (Reuters) - Russian security forces in the southern region of Dagestan on Saturday said they had ended an operation against militants after three days of clashes in which they said 21 people were killed.

At least four militants died overnight in the mainly Muslim region neighbouring Chechnya, which has a tradition of rebellion against rule from Moscow.

Five policemen were killed since clashes started on Thursday and 12 other rebels were killed outside the regional capital of Makhachkala.

The internal ministry and the local FSB state security service said they were aiming to eliminate a band of militants operating 30 km (19 miles) south of Makhachkala.

It appeared to be the biggest such security operation in the North Caucasus for several months.

“The group committed several crimes in two regions in Dagestan,” the province’s Interior Minister Adilgirei Magomedtagirov told reporters.

“There are at least three non-Russians with Arab nationality amongst the dead militants, perhaps even four,” he added.

State-owned Vesti-24 channel showed a row of dead rebels lying in the snow with Kalashnikov rifles slung across their limp shoulders.

Magomedtagirov said a collection of Kalashnikov rifles, machine guns and a sniper rifle were found where the militants were hiding.

Earlier, television showed helicopter gunships firing from the snowy skies at targets in a forest and armoured vehicles rolling into the mountainous area.

The bodies of four militants who died overnight were shown lying among shattered glass near a battered, white Lada car.

Dagestan, with a population of more than 2.5 million, is wedged between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea.