Russia Clashes Leave At Least 24 Dead In Northern Caucasus

MOSCOW, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Seventeen police and at least seven insurgents were killed in four days of fighting on the border between the Chechnya and Dagestan provinces in Russia's North Caucasus, police said on Saturday.

The toll among government forces was the biggest in months in the region along Russia's southern border, where it faces an Islamist insurgency more than a decade after driving separatists from power in a war in Chechnya.

Another 24 police and security troops were wounded in the fighting, state-run news agency RIA cited Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev as telling President Dmitry Medvedev.

He said the government forces had been ambushed, but it was unclear when that happened. Other reports suggested the police were killed at various times during the fighting.

Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov said on Friday seven members of an armed group had been killed, including its leader.

Russian forces fought two wars against Chechen rebels, first in 1994-1996 and again beginning in 1999.

Chechnya has been rebuilt but fighting persists there and insurgents carry out nearly daily attacks in neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia. Rights groups say heavy-handed police tactics fuel the rebellion.

The insurgents based in the mostly Muslim North Caucasus have also struck with suicide bombings in Moscow, including a blast that killed 37 people at Russia's busiest airport in January 2011.

(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Janet Lawrence)