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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Pound Grozny in Huge Assault

GROZNY -- Russian forces began a massive new attack Thursday to take the capital of Chechnya, pounding the city with waves of artillery and rockets as infantry and tanks smashed into rebel positions.

In the heaviest assault yet on the secessionist capital, huge Russian forces closed in relentlessly on the battered Presidential Palace and city center. Chechen fighters were being driven back house by house and their resistance in the city appeared close to collapse.

Huge plumes of black smoke spiraled hundreds of feet into the sky over the city as shells slammed into buildings. Heavy machine-gun and small-arms fire echoed across the city center as Russian troops attacked from three directions.

Chechen fighters, who had boasted in recent days of defeating the Russian Army, were visibly worried and exhausted. Large units had dwindled to a few men and some groups were seen moving out of the city.

According to a Russian government statement, Russian troops "achieved significant results" after resuming their drive to take control of the capital.

Among the latest refugees were members of President Dzhokhar Dudayev's government who continued to arrive in neighboring Ingushetia, from where they planned to fly abroad, the Russian government press service said.

Chechen officers claimed their forces still held the palace, but admitted the fight was not going well.

"There are still some people left in the palace," said one Chechen fighter, clutching a double-barreled shotgun and looking very tired and frightened.

Rebel fighters were short of ammunition. Several old men in their 60s armed with pistols and daggers were helping man positions.

Hundreds of Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and troop trucks were moving on several roads toward Grozny. In villages along the route, Chechens were desperately trying to organize defense units, but they had only rifles and no heavy weapons.

Some Russian soldiers, who would not give their names, said this time they were going to take the Chechen capital.

With its new offensive, Russia clearly has interpreted as a sign of weakness Dudayev's admission that his fighters could not defeat the Russian Army. On Wednesday, the one-month mark of the war, Dudayev said he was ready for peace talks.

Overnight, the Russian air force dropped dozens of bombs on Grozny, which was almost completely deserted Thursday except for small bands of rebel soldiers. The smell of leaking gas from shattered natural gas pipelines pervaded parts of the city and dazed dogs wandered through the rubble.

The air was filled with the constant scream of shells, followed by explosions that shook the ground.

A bewildered woman, tears streaming down her face, wandered down a main thoroughfare as shells exploded nearby. "Jesus, what are they doing to us?" she asked. "They are not human."

Russian helicopters could be heard overhead for the first time.

Shelling lasted all day, and on Thursday night a shell apparently torched a gas pipeline in an outlying neighborhood. Interfax said a fountain of flames two to three meters high was leaping from the ruptured line.

Moscow's troops poured into Chechyna, a mostly Moslem republic of 1.2 million in the Caucasus Mountains, on Dec. 11 to crush its independence movement.

Thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the war, although casualty estimates vary wildly.

The Russian government said 394 of its troops had been killed in the war; a day earlier, a legislator put that number at 1,500 or more. A Chechen spokesman told Interfax that 3,000 to 4,000 Russians had been killed this month alone.

The ground assault on Grozny began New Year's Eve and has turned the city into a smoking ruin littered with corpses and rubble.

Two small markets continued to operate in the south of the city, selling bread, dried fish and American soft drinks and candy bars. But many elderly people have no money to buy food and some gathered on street corners, hoping free bread would be distributed.

"This is the way we live. We have to get water from the marsh," said one terrified old woman.

A few men with cars were charging people up to 200,000 rubles ($53) for a ride in overcrowded vehicles out of the city -- a sum equal to more than two month's salary for many local people.

A dozen or more Russian POWs were preparing to fly to Moscow after Chechen fighters turned them over this week to a group of soldiers' mothers who went to Grozny, ITAR-Tass reported.

Dudayev's fighters still were holding some 40 Russians hostage in the basement of the presidential palace, Interfax said.