MESKER-YURT, Russia — Looking toward the end of the war in Chechnya, acting President Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday said negotiations could be held with some Chechen factions and indicated that the republic could have some autonomy within Russia.
Putin's statement came as the Russian military claimed that a large concentration of rebels had been forced to disperse under intense air and ground assaults in Chechnya's southern mountains.
Russian troops have captured dominant heights around the town of Shatoi, the separatist rebels' last major command post, the military said.
The core of the rebel force in Shatoi has broken up into small groups, the Itar-Tass news agency reported, citing military sources. Defense Minister Igor D. Sergeyev said 70 to 80 rebels have been killed around Shatoi since Wednesday, while two Russian servicemen died.
Military commanders said earlier in the week that about 2,700 militants were concentrated near Shatoi, 28 miles south of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the Argun Gorge.
The claim that the core force had disintegrated could not be independently confirmed. Even in small groups, the rebels--adept at guerrilla attacks--can inflict much harm on the numerically superior Russian forces. But the loss of strategically positioned Shatoi could seriously weaken the rebels.
Military officers said their commanders were not planning a quick storming of Shatoi and would go on with the heavy barrage for a while--the tactics used by Russians to seize Grozny this month.
Putin told St. Petersburg's Radio Baltica that there were "forces in Chechnya with whom it's possible to hold negotiations," but he did not specify the forces he meant. The Kremlin, however, backs a group called the Chechen State Council that was formed in Moscow last fall.
Throughout the five-month war, Putin has consistently refused to consider negotiating with the rebels, and his statement Thursday was not an apparent change in policy.
Chechens, human rights groups and Western governments have repeatedly lashed out at Russia's tactics in Chechnya, saying the shelling and bombing have killed civilians indiscriminately.
"Nobody wants to enslave the Chechen people, push them into a corner and present them as a defeated people," Putin said Thursday. "There are many ways and means of resolving problems connected with autonomy, and they will be found."
There were no details about how much autonomy Russia would be willing to allow in Chechnya. The republic has had de facto independence since rebels fought Russian forces to a standstill in the 1994-96 war; since then it has been essentially ungovernable, plagued by flourishing crime--especially ransom kidnappings.
Russia planned to reopen border crossings Friday between Chechnya and the republic of Ingushetia, the Interfax news agency reported. The crossings were closed Tuesday because Russian officials said they were concerned about terrorist actions reportedly planned for Wednesday, the day Chechens commemorated their 1944 deportation.
After weeks of airstrikes, Russia sent troops into Chechnya in late September to fight rebels it blamed for bombings that killed about 300 people in Russia. The bombings came after Chechen-based fighters invaded the neighboring republic of Dagestan in August and were driven out by Russian forces.