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. Russia acknowledges 3,400 soldiers killed in Chechnya since 1999
MOSCOW (AFP) Mar 30, 2005
More than 3,400 Russian soldiers have been killed in Chechnya since President Vladimir Putin started a second offensive in the republic in 1999 to put down a tenacious rebellion there, the defence ministry said Wednesday.

In total, 3,419 soldiers have died and 29 were missing, the ministry said, confirming a report in the Argumenty i Fakty newspaper which had initially compiled the numbers.

The ministry rarely makes public its military losses in Chechnya.

An association of soldiers' mothers challenged the ministry's figures, saying they were grossly understated.

"According to our evaluation, the real toll is some 14,000 deaths," the head of the association, Valentina Melnikova, said.

However, the association also included interior ministry troops and intelligence officers in its cacluations and not just defence ministry soldiers.

Russia has 80,000 troops in Chechnya, 30,000 under the orders of the defence ministry and 50,000 under the interior ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB).

The defence ministry said 28 Russian soldiers have been killed in Chechnya since the beginning of this year.

A Russian military official in the unified North Caucasus command, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said another seven soldiers were killed in Chechnya on Tuesday and Wednesday. Four were killed in firefights and three were in a truck that hit a mine.

In 2004, the Russian military toll was 161 dead and one missing, the defence ministry said. The deadliest year was 2000, with 1,397 soldiers killed and 13 missing.

The defence ministry said its troops are in Chechnya as part of an "anti-terrorist operation." The conflict and the one that preceded it between 1994 and 1996 have claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives, according to official figures.

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