Government forces have killed more than 20 militants in Chechnya, and a bomb blast at a cemetery in a neighboring province killed three relatives visiting the grave of a police officer slain by insurgents, law enforcement authorities said.
Chechnya's Kremlin-backed president said it was possible Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov was among those killed Friday in the fighting in the province's southern mountains. President Ramzan Kadyrov said one of the dead was identified as a comrade who has often been at Umarov's side, according to his office, but he cited no other evidence and said forensics experts would seek to identify other victims.
Chechen Interior Minister Magomed Deniyev said there were no casualties among government forces in the fighting. The reported toll was unusually high, but it comes amid an upsurge of violence in mostly Muslim Chechnya nearly a decade after Russian forces drove an independence-minded regional government from power in the second of two devastating separatist wars.
Neighboring provinces in Russia's volatile North Caucasus are also plagued by violence, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev singled out the region as a source of serious concern in his state of the nation speech Tuesday.
In Dagestan, east of Chechnya, a bomb blast at a village cemetery killed three civilians _ the widow, sister and daughter of a police officer who was among the victims of nearly daily attacks on law enforcement authorities in the province, regional Interior Ministry spokesman Mark Tolchinsky said. Authorities believe the attack was the work of Islamic militants, he said.
In Ingushetia, west of Chechnya, three suspected militants who opened fire at a police checkpoint Friday were shot and killed, officials said.
Madina Khadziyeva, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's branch in the province of Ingushetia, said police stopped the suspects' car and asked for identification, and the men were killed by policer after responding with gunfire. Police in the North Caucasus frequently report such scenarios, and the account could not be independently verified.
Associated Press Writer Arsen Mollayev contributed to this report from Makhachkala, Russia.