Russian tactics in Chechnya are now focused on sweeping populated areas for small groups of rebels. However, Federal units continue to run into problems that turn such law enforcement actions into firefights that degenerate into public relations nightmares.
On 8 November 2001, the rebels attacked a Russian column on the Argun-Grozny road, claiming to have killed nine Federals and destroyed two vehicles. The Interior Ministry press service team in Argun also came under fire. The driver was killed and a cameraman badly wounded. Perhaps as a response to this, Federal troops conducted a "sweep" of Argun, Chechnya's third largest town.
Interior Ministry troops were ordered to make an inspection in the area around the railway station during the night of 8-9 November (Apparently the mission started around 22.00 8 November). They moved towards the local interior department and were ambush. An FSB report published later said that a mixed patrol of Interior Ministry and 34th Special Brigade troops were sweeping six districts of Argun.
At 0030 on the 9th, near Sakharozavodskaya Street, FSB agents killed two rebels. A later report said that the patrol ran into four rebels near the railway station, engaged and killed three of them while capturing the fourth. On the way back (about 90 minutes later), the Russians come across another group of 30 - 40 rebels (presumably belonging to the gang led by field commander Islam Eskiyev).
The Russian patrol took up defensive positions in one of the local private houses and organized an all-around defense. Another reconnaissance team that was working in the area, came to their rescue and tried to break the encirclement. The Interior Ministry patrols called in fire from 120mm mortars. One Interior Ministry's serviceman was killed and eight were wounded in fight that went until dawn (Another source noted that one Interior Ministry serviceman was killed and another wounded). The FSB unit suffered no casualties.
The Chechen version was that as the rebels put up resistance, Russian soldiers asked for artillery assistance. Kavkaz claimed that at 06.30 on the morning of the 9th, the Russians fired a massive artillery and mortar strike on Argun and that the worst destruction was on the streets Novaya, Zavodskaya, Mira and Shevchenko. Private houses in that area were totally demolished and at least 15 civilians were killed (seven women and five children) while 40 were wounded. The pro-rebel Chechenpress claimed that 13 Argun residents were killed (including children and women) and 19 wounded during the day as a result of artillery firing, which hit the towns five-story housing estate. Over a dozen houses were burned.
The Russians claimed that seven to ten rebels were killed and another fifteen wounded, while three "automatic explosive devices," 250 electric detonators, and a portable radio transmitter were found at the scene. The Federals' total haul included two AKMs, a PM pistol, a tubular grenade launcher, an F-1 grenade and two Kenwood radio transmitter-receivers. Throughout the course of the day, about 20 patients with fire arms wounds were admitted to local hospitals.
Inbound and outbound traffic to Argun was promptly blocked that morning. Several hundred residents turned out near the central market to protest the Russian actions, which they kept up on the 10th. RIA reported that the Head of the Chechen Republic, Akhmad Kadyrov, and Chechnya's Prosecutor, Vsevolod Chernov, met that day with a delegation of Argun's elders. Both Chernov and Kadyrov pointed out that there were many rebels still entrenched in Argun, and it was they who were primarily responsible for the shootouts occurring in Argun.
The rally continued into the 11th, with 1,500 residents protesting from 1000 hours until 1700 hours. Sources in the Chechen military commandant's office told Interfax that same day that an investigation was launched based on the Argun residents' complaint that five civilians were killed and 21 others were wounded.
LTG Vladimir Moltenskoy, commander of the federal force in the North Caucasus, said that force "commensurable with the situation" was used in the Argun operation. Federal sweeps continued in Argun, while Moltenskoy stated that "we do not plan any superfluous actions, but our actions will always be adequate to the attacks of rebels".
The Russians claim that the rebels, facing the coming winter, were trying to leave the mountains and legally establish themselves in the towns. One of the rebels had a Argun registration [a domestic passport], with his registered address on the next street to the one where the fighting occurred. - Adam Geibel