updated 3/21/2009 9:48:48 PM ET 2009-03-22T01:48:48

Three days of intense fighting between police and insurgents in a wooded area of Dagestan ended Saturday with five officers and about a dozen militants left dead, Russian officials said.

Clashes are frequent in Dagestan, but the fighting in an area near the border with Georgia and Azerbaijan was some of the most intense in recent months. Helicopter gunships fired on the militant positions.

Regional Interior Ministry spokesman Mark Tolchinsky said 14 insurgents were killed, but the Interfax news agency cited the Federal Security Service as saying 12 died.

Dagestan's militants are seen as having been inspired by separatists in neighboring Chechnya, where two wars have been fought with Russian forces in the past 15 years.

The police action, which began Wednesday, came after officials in the regions complained to regional authorities about the presence of the gunmen.

Underscoring the seriousness of the fighting, state-run TV also prominently showed a meeting Friday between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Dagestan's leader, Mukhu Aliev.

In the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, police fatally shot four men Friday who failed to stop their car at a checkpoint and began shooting at officers, city police spokesman Shamil Guseinov said.

The fighting is the latest round of violence to plague the North Caucasus, pitting criminal gangs, Islamic militants or feuding clans against one another or against government and police forces.

Islamic-inspired rebels sparked two wars in Chechnya over the past 15 years, but any large-scale insurgency ended years ago. Still, Chechnya sees occasional hit-and-run attacks on government troops and the violence has spilled over into neighboring regions such as Dagestan or Kabardino-Balkaria.

A three-hour shoot-out Thursday north of the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria left four gunmen killed.

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