MOSCOW — For the fourth time in two months, Chechen rebels have ambushed a Russian armored column traveling through territory recaptured from the separatists, underscoring the rebels' growing boldness as the conflict evolves into a full-scale guerrilla war.
Russian officials said Monday that 13 paratroopers were killed in the attack Sunday. But they insisted that, unlike earlier incidents, the ambush could not be blamed on errors by the Russian command or decisions on the ground. Instead, they said it was the kind of event Russia will probably face more frequently in coming months.
"This is war," said a bellicose Gen. Gennady Troshev, recently promoted to command all Russian forces in the separatist region. "There have been ambushes. There are ambushes [now]. There will be more ambushes in the future.
"And there will be casualties," he added. "What we must do is try to keep them to a minimum."
Since they drove the rebels from the Chechen capital, Grozny, in early February, Russian officials have insisted that a guerrilla war was not in the offing. They argued that the guerrillas needed the support of the populace and that civilians didn't support the rebels.
However, spring has put leaves on the trees, giving rebels better cover in the republic's southern mountains. Russian officials have been forced to acknowledge that the rebels are using "partisan tactics."
"Much of Chechnya is under proper control, but we cannot rule out acts of sabotage," said Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, the government's official spokesman on Chechnya. In the south, he said, "the situation is not fully under control. It is a fact that cannot be challenged."
A column of 22 vehicles carrying 60 paratroopers from the central city of Tula was traveling through a gorge outside the town of Serzhen-Yurt, about 20 miles southeast of Grozny, when Sunday's ambush occurred. Rebels set off radio-controlled mines in the road, halting and trapping five of the vehicles.
But in contrast to earlier incidents, the column was escorted by armored vehicles and helicopters. After a two-hour battle, helicopter and artillery fire drove back the rebels, Yastrzhembsky said.
"This time, although the attackers had the element of surprise on their side, the measures that were taken, including providing the column with protection, with helicopter cover, [meant] our losses were minimized," he said.
Early reports put the death toll at 15 Russians, but Troshev insisted that only 13 paratroopers were killed and that six were injured. At least four rebels were reportedly killed and 11 suspected rebels taken into custody.
The Chechens claimed to have killed many more Russians. According to a Web site (http://www.avkaz.org) run by a rebel spokesman, Movladi Ugudov, the battle lasted four hours and left 80 Russian soldiers dead. The Web site claimed no rebel losses. Both sides routinely underplay their losses and exaggerate their opponents'.
The recent series of ambushes has noticeably heightened Russian public concern about the war, especially as losses--now officially topping 2,000 Russian troops--mount.
The first ambush, on a column of elite police troops from the Moscow region, left 20 dead on March 2. That attack was followed by another, on March 29, that killed 39 police troops from the Siberian city of Perm, and a third, on April 5, that killed one paratrooper from the Khanty-Mansiysk region of Siberia.
In addition, 84 paratroopers from the northwestern city of Pskov died Feb. 29 in a mountain gorge when they were overwhelmed by a much larger group of rebels. That loss was the highest for the Russians in any single battle of the war.
As Western pressure has mounted, Russians have given conflicting signals as to whether they are willing to begin negotiations with the Chechen side. For his part, Russian President-elect Vladimir V. Putin has denounced Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov as an unsuitable negotiating partner.
"As far as Russia is concerned, Aslan Maskhadov is a criminal," Putin said Friday. "He says he's ready for anything, but in reality he does nothing."