AFP - Russia announced Monday its air and ground forces had killed 17 rebels in a highly unusual precision strike on a Caucasus base used by Islamists to train suicide bombers and stage other attacks.
At least three Russian servicemen were also reported killed in the violence.
The National Anti-Terror Committee said Monday's special operation was planned by Russia's interior and defence ministries as part of a broader probe into the deadly suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport in January.
"A precision air force strike and ground operation has destroyed a base used by militants to prepare suicide bombers, including for acts of terror on the territories of North Ossetia and Ingushetia," news agencies quoted the Russian statement as saying.
"According to preliminary information, 17 bandits have been destroyed and two participants of the act of terror at Domodedovo have been detained," the National Anti-Terror Committee said.
The use of air strikes in the heavily forested North Caucasus mountains is a highly unusual tactic that was most notably practiced in the years of open warfare that ended in the once-separatist republic of Chechnya about a decade ago.
The toll is also one of the highest reported by Russian forces in a single attack since that war.
Much of the violence has since spilled over to the neighbouring predominantly Muslim republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia amid militants' efforts to create a Muslim republic along Russia's impoverished southern periphery.
The continued tensions across Russia's Caucasus are causing increasing worry to the government in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for December and presidential polls one year from now.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has even suggested that the Arab rebellions now sweeping north Africa and the Middle East will have a "direct effect on Russia" because of the potential rise of Islamists to power.
He instructed the government to introduce a new set of urgent security measures and social programmes aimed at finally weaning the youth off membership in Islamist organisations and organised crime groups.
But the region's violence continues to escalate and has recently also spilled over to Kabardino-Balkaria -- a popular mountain resort that remained a rare island of stability for most of the past two decades.
Militants in Kabardino-Balkaria last month gunned down three Moscow tourists and then staged a daring attack on the republic's capital in a strike that prompted another series of emergency meetings in Moscow.
Medvedev has been particularly critical of the lax security that enabled a suspected suicide bomber from Ingushetia to stroll into the arrivals hall of Russia's busiest airport and set off his deadly charge in an attack that killed 37.
Russian forces have since identified the suspected bomber and also arrested his siblings and friends as part of their politically sensitive investigations.
The January 24 blast has been claimed by feared Chechen Islamist Doku Umarov, but the arrests made so far have not involved any well-known rebel figures.
The National Anti-Terror Committee reported making two more arrests in connection with the Domodedovo bombing on Monday.