At least four policemen and two militants died in a gun battle on Friday during a security sweep through the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the latest evidence of rising bloodshed in Russia's North Caucasus.
Police also were conducting house-to-house searches in Dagestan, Chechnya's eastern neighbor, in search of a gang responsible for gunning down seven prostitutes in a bathhouse and four policemen who got in their way.
The Chechen Interior Ministry said security forces encountered two gunmen holed up in a Grozny house overnight, triggering a 1 1/2-hour gun battle. The firefight ended with both militants dead, while at least four officers also died and four more were wounded. South of Grozny, five Interior Ministry troops were wounded during an unrelated gun battle with militants.
West of the Dagestan capital of Makhachkala, police swept districts in search of the gang responsible for the bathhouse slaughter. Those militants also killed four police officers at a road checkpoint.
Police also shot and killed three militants south of Makhachkala when they refused to stop their car, Dagestan Interior Ministry spokesman Mark Tolchinsky said.
The rising violence throughout Russia's North Caucasus is undermining the Kremlin's claims to be enforcing effective law and order in the region.
While large-scale fighting from the two wars that ravaged Chechnya since 1994 has ended, militants continue to mount hit-and-run attacks and skirmishes with Russian and Chechen security forces. Bloodshed has surged in recent months and increasingly spilled into Chehnya's neighbors.
"Certainly, what is happening now is being heated up from the outside, beyond the Russian borders. There can be no other explanation. Dagestani people do not need to kill one another," Dagestan Interior Minister Ali Magomedov was quoted as telling the Interfax news agency.
Police blamed Muslim extremists for targeting women who are deemed to violate the moral codes of Islam. They said on Thursday's bathhouse massacre in the city of Buinaksk was a deliberate attack on prostitutes.
Also Thursday in Ingushetia, the province west of Chechnya, three gunmen killed a woman who told fortunes. Some Muslims consider fortune-telling to be immoral.
Human rights and aid workers in Chechnya also are increasingly in the firing line. Zarema Sadulayeva, a Chechen woman who helped maimed children, and her husband were kidnapped and killed earlier this week.
Last month Natalya Estemirova, a prominent activist for the rights group Memorial, was abducted and killed. Memorial and other human rights groups suspended their operations in the region. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was meeting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday in Moscow, condemned the slaying of Sadulayeva and her husband as "absolutely unacceptable." Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper critical of the Kremlin, this week also ordered its reporters to stop their work in Chechnya.
The newspaper said the recent killings suggested that "a coordinated campaign to destroy human rights advocates has been launched in Chechnya."
Novaya Gazeta's former star investigative reporter, Anna Politkovskaya, was assassinated in Moscow in 2006 in apparent retaliation for her coverage of Russian abuses in Chechnya.