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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Airstrikes Tighten Noose on Grozny

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS -- GROZNY


Russian warplanes and heavy artillery moved to draw a tighter circle around the Chechen capital Tuesday, and Chechen fighters retreated to reinforce positions around Grozny.


Russia says it is planning the second phase of its campaign to wipe out Islamic militants, but has not said whether it intends to send its forces into Grozny.


The capital saw the heaviest fighting in a 1994-96 war in Chechnya, with the outnumbered guerrillas frequently inflicting major losses on the Russian army in street-fighting, and the current conflict has raised fears that the army is about to be sucked into another such bloodbath.


Russian troops are as close as 16 kilometers from Grozny, with units perched on a ridge overlooking the city, which spreads across several valleys.


Artillery and warplanes attacked militants' bases in at least four locations Tuesday, including Alkan-Yurt, just 10 kilometers southwest of Grozny, and destroyed a radio relay station in Pervomaiskoye, 20 kilometers northwest of Grozny, Itar-Tass reported, citing the Defense Ministry.


The Russians also destroyed a key bridge in Chiri-Yurt, to the south of Grozny, and bombed roads leading out of the mountains that form Chechnya's border with Georgia, the agency said.


Chechen fighters repulsed a Russian offensive against Gudermes, a substantial city 35 kilometers east of Grozny, killing 25 soldiers, according to claims by Magomed Chupolayev of Chechnya's eastern-front command.


However, Russia said it had not launched any infantry combat operations in the past 24 hours, according to Itar-Tass.


Chechen northern front commander Baudin Bakuyev said fighters had retreated from the open fields of the northern third of Chechnya, where Russian troopshave solid control.


The fighters were heading to Grozny to reinforce positions in anticipation of a Russian attack and to the key southwestern town of Bamut.


Russia claimed to have killed 40 rebels in overnight attacks, and Chechen military commanders said Tuesday that seven civilians were killed overnight in Gekhi, one of several southern villages that Russian forces shelled.


As it has done throughout the latest conflict, Russia denied that its bombs were hitting civilians.


President Boris Yeltsin on Tuesday tried to ease Western fears over fighting in Chechnya with a message to U.S. President Bill Clinton saying Russia wanted a political solution to the conflict, Reuters reported.


Yeltsin's message painted Russia as a victim of international terrorism but said it was open to talks with "all Chechen leaders who do not accept violence and terror. Russia has become the target of attacks from terrorist and bandit groups based in Chechnya, which are unprecedented in their brutality and cynicism," Yeltsin was quoted by a Kremlin statement as saying.


Yeltsin said Russia's aim was to crush the "nest of terrorism" and to restore constitutional order in Chechnya.


"As far as political questions are concerned, including the status of Chechnya, they must and will be resolved by political means through negotiations," Yeltsin said.


Chechnya claims full independence, but Russia says it must stay within the Russian Federation, albeit with wide autonomy.