Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an attempt to calm tensions in the separatist republic, has offered Chechnya limited autonomy and set elections for 5 October this year. Maskhadov, who heads a force of about 1200 men, has been excluded from running for office.

"To those who recommend we launch talks with Maskhadov, I always invite them to talk with Mullah Omar," Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov told Russin News Agency Interfax. "It’s the same thing."

Though Russian troops have been battling Chechen rebels since 1999, they have had only limited success in quelling their fight for independence. Moscow is pushing ahead with a peace plan to end the conflict in the mainly Muslim province, while mounting aerial bombardments on rebel positions.

Despite being outgunned and outnumbered, Chechen fighters have been using surprise ambushes with startling effect, inflicting substantial losses on the Russian forces.

Russian Deaths 

Official estimates put Russian fatalities since 1999 at about 3,500 dead and more than 11,000 wounded. The Soldiers' Mothers of Russia group estimates are more than double that number, based on information from wounded troops and soldiers' relatives, according to the Associated Press.

On Sunday, nine Russian soldiers were killed when a remote controlled mine was detonated under the vehicle in which they were traveling. The attack happened south of Chechnya’s capital,  Grozny, in the Shatoi region, Agence France-Presse reported.

Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has urged the Russian government to initiate talks with the rebels, and do more to facilitate the return of internally displaced persons.