Moscow - More than 3 500 Russian soldiers have been killed since 1999 in fighting in Chechnya, a Russian news agency reported on Sunday.

The Interfax news agency, citing the Defense Ministry, reported that 3 501 servicemen died in combat in the region through the end of January and 32 have gone missing. That death toll does not include losses of troops operating under the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service and other federal law enforcement agencies that have deployed huge forces in Chechnya.

Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya in 1996 following a two-year botched war, leaving the region de facto independent, but returned in 1999 following Chechen rebels' incursion into a neighboring province and apartment building explosions blamed on Chechnya-based militants.

Large-scale battles in Chechnya long have ended, but militants have continued to stage regular raids against federal forces and their local collaborators. The defence ministry said that 103 servicemen were killed in fighting last year, and another six died in January.

On Saturday, officers of the local Moscow-controlled police force tracked down three suspected militants in the southern village of Avtury and killed them in a gunbattle after they refused to surrender, said Ruslan Atsayev, a spokesman for the regional branch of Russia's Interior Ministry. A police officer was also killed in the skirmish, he said.

Neighboring provinces in southern Russia also have been restive, destabilised by spillover violence from Chechnya and local criminal clans.

A woman was killed in the republic of Ingushetia west of Chechnya late on Saturday, when an unidentified assailant tossed a hand grenade into a window of her home in the village of Ordzhonikidzevskaya, the regional police said. Another woman was wounded in a similar attack in the nearby village of Troitskaya, it said.

It wasn't immediately clear who were behind the attacks that stoked up tensions in the region. -