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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Invasion Closes on Grozny


GROZNY -- Russian warplanes and artillery pounded Chechen positions Tuesday as three columns of troops continued to press toward the capital Grozny in the largest operation the armed forces have seen since the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

Military officials said 11 Russian soldiers had been killed and 14 wounded in the first casualty figures released since troops poured over the Chechen border Sunday to put an end to the republic's three-year bid for secession from Russia. Russia did not, however, confirm Chechnya's claims to have shot down two planes. Chechen casualty figures were not available

Negotiators in the neighboring republic of North Ossetia spent a second day of talks on ending the military confrontation, but they adjourned Tuesday afternoon without reporting progress.

NTV television showed Chechen separatist fighters in Grozny, including adolescent boys, preparing barricades against attack and filling piles of Molotov cocktails, which have quickly been dubbed "Chechen samogon," or moonshine.

"Grozny will shortly be encircled and only capitulation of (Chechen President Dzhokhar) Dudayev forces would stop bloodshed," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Yegorov was quoted as saying on Ostankino television.

But Dudayev remained defiant, saying Russian forces "will be attacked from the rear in a traditional tactic of mountaineers: hit and run, hit and run, which will exhaust them until they, out of fear and terror, give up."

Helicopter gunships and at least four warplanes joined in an attack on the village of Pervomaiskoye, 15 kilometers northwest of Grozny, which NTV reported was used as a base of Chechen ground-to-ground Grad missile launchers.

Stunned villagers wandered the streets, scattering upon hearing the sound of approaching aircraft.

"They're killing innocent people!" wailed Vera Cheborbayova, an ethnic Russian whose neighbor was wounded in the attack.

In Dovidenko, about 40 kilometers west of Grozny, 200 unarmed villagers blocked the road, waving banners and calling on Russian troops not to shoot.

Estimates of troops numbers involved in the assault on Chechnya varied between 10,000 and 40,000. At the Russian airbase in Mozdok in neighboring North Ossetia, the roar of military transport jets landing and taking off continued night and day throughout the weekend.

Military helicopters made several low passes over Mozdok itself Monday, while the muffled thumps of distant artillery reverberated in the town and Russian forces carried out maneuvers in preparation for a possible invasion in earnest.

The dispatch of troops into Chechnya was announced Sunday in a statement to the nation by President Boris Yeltsin. He said the move had been prompted "by the threat to the integrity of Russia, to the safety of its citizens both in Chechnya and beyond its borders, and by the possibility of destabilizing the political and economic situation."

"Our goal is to find a political solution to the problems in one of the subjects of the Russian Federation, the Chechen republic, and to protect its citizens from armed extremism," the statement said.

Yeltsin underwent minor surgery on his nose Saturday. Presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov said at a press conference Monday that Yeltsin would likely resume work in his Kremlin office "shortly."

The intervention in Chechnya has been beset with problems from the outset. An initial three-pronged advance on Grozny went awry when two of the columns were held up in the neighboring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan.

By Sunday night, the force advancing from the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz was reported to be within 15 kilometers of Grozny. But the column advancing from the northwest through Ingushetia was attacked by Ingush fighters before it reached the Chechen border on Sunday and lost 30 vehicles, which were set on fire.

Similar problems were encountered by a convoy moving from Dagestan, which was held up by furious Dagestani locals who blocked roads and took more than 40 Russian soldiers prisoner before passing them on to the Chechen authorities in Grozny.

Both columns succeeded in crossing into Chechnya only on Tuesday, making it unlikely that the operation would succeed in its declared aim of sealing off Grozny by the end of the day. The column from Ingushetia dug in for the night 40 kilometers short of Grozny after the road was blocked by unarmed civilians.

The Kremlin has said its aim is to blockade Grozny, a city with a population of 400,000, rather than to storm it, to avoid bloodshed and force Dudayev to end his three-year bid for independence.

A rising death toll could create more political problems for Yeltsin, who is already facing opposition at home for his decision to dispatch soldiers.

Nonetheless, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev told reporters in Moscow that if Chechen units did not disarm, Russia "will be forced to use as much force as necessary to establish law and order," Itar-Tass said.

Russian and Chechen delegates meeting in Vladikavkaz said both sides wanted an agreement. But they remained at odds over Russia's demand that Chechen forces put down their weapons. Chechnya insists that Moscow withdraw its forces first.

"The fact that the Russian and Chechen sides are at the negotiating table at all is positive," said Vyacheslav Mikhailov, the leader of the Russian delegation. Despite differences, "there is a desire to resolve the extremely complex problem," he told Itar-Tass.

But NTV reported Tuesday that the talks had again been suspended without agreement.

Chechen officials remained defiant, and while the delegates talked, there were a number of skirmishes between Russian and Chechen forces.

Russian jets buzzed Grozny in an apparent attempt to pressure the population. But Russian military officials denied residents' reports that the planes dropped bombs. Reuters and Vesti TV crews trying to cross a bridge from the neighboring Ingushetia region were fired on with automatic weapons. No injuries were reported but one camera was destroyed and their car had a dozen bullet holes. (