MOSCOW — Russian forces took control Tuesday of five Dagestani villages that had been seized nearly three weeks ago by fundamentalist Islamic rebels, though the guerrillas declared that their fighters had pulled out before the Russians moved in.
Russian military officials claimed Tuesday to have crushed the rebellion, meeting a two-week deadline that new Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin had set for resolving the crisis in the Caucasus region.
The fall of the villages to Russian forces could spell an end to the immediate conflict in the Botlikh district of western Dagestan, boosting Putin's political standing.
But the prime minister will be under renewed pressure if the rebels, led by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, reassert themselves in the coming weeks or months, as some analysts have predicted.
Russian forces retook the villages a day after a spokesman for the rebels announced that the Islamic fighters were pulling out and asserted that a new phase of their operation to split Dagestan from Russia would begin.
Stopping short of claiming victory Tuesday, Russian military officials said they had almost defeated the rebels. The officials said 1,000 Islamic fighters were killed during the 2 1/2-week conflict, though Russian claims concerning rebel casualties have varied wildly from day to day and are contested by the rebels, who say 41 of their fighters died.
Moscow says 47 Russian soldiers and 12 police officers were killed.
Putin, who was appointed prime minister by President Boris N. Yeltsin on Aug. 9 and confirmed by parliament a week later, put his credibility on the line in Dagestan, promising a speedy end to the crisis. He clearly is determined to avoid a repetition of the 1994-96 war in Chechnya; military officials promised to end that conflict in weeks, but it dragged on for 22 months and cost tens of thousands of lives. It ended with Moscow in effect losing control of the separatist republic, which nominally remains part of Russia.
On Aug. 7, about 1,500 rebels pushed into Dagestan from neighboring Chechnya, taking control in mountainous villages. The Russians hit back hard, launching dozens of airstrikes daily.
With the villages now in ruins, Basayev on Tuesday claimed that there had been no rebels in the region for two days. In comments on an Internet Web site that purports to represent the rebels' views, he called on the Russians to stop what he labeled an imaginary show of surrounding rebels and storming villages.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst for the Sevodnya newspaper in Moscow, said Basayev's rebels had retreated in an orderly way, and questioned the Russian claims as to rebel casualties.
"Basayev promises a second stage of the operation in Dagestan," he said. "This time he may capture a bigger town and see it bombed to ruins by Russian planes. It can go on indefinitely until the Dagestani population sees that the Russian army is actually destroying their land."
Unlike the Chechen war, in which the population stood firmly behind the separatist fighters, the rebellion has had only limited support in Dagestan, an ethnically diverse republic of about 2 million people.
The Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, claimed Tuesday that Russia had taken the villages of Tando, Rakhata, Shodrota, Ansalta and Ashino in the Botlikh district. There were other claims that Russian soldiers had found mass graves as they moved into the villages, but no further details were provided.