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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Generals Mull Chechen Strategy

GROZNY, Chechnya -- Russian forces battered Chechnya with airstrikes and artillery Wednesday as Moscow's top brass considered whether to push deeper into the republic or hold their positions.

The Russians rained artillery shells on northwest Chechnya and carried out bombing raids in eastern Chechnya, Chechen officials said. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Russian forces may mount new offensives toward Grozny and other towns. Russia has given few indications of it s strategy, keeping the Chechens off guard and forcing them to spread their forces thinly on the ground. "Everything will depend on the situation," Sergeyev said.

Sergeyev claimed the Russians were encountering only "pockets of resistance" from Chechen fighters. Chechen leaders gave a different picture, describing heavy fighting in the face of the Russian advance.

Chechen Moslem clerics were expected to call for a "holy war" against Russia, Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Kazbek Makhashev told Interfax.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, apparently aiming to establish order among the Chechen forces, on Wednesday declared that he was taking direct command of the armed forces. The Chechens are divided, with several powerful Islamic warlords opposed to Maskhadov's government.

It was not immediately clear how well the move would work. Since taking office in 1997, Maskhadov has been weak and unable to control the warlords.

Maskhadov has declared martial law and his government says the economy will be placed on war footing.

Russia stepped up its economic campaign against Chechnya, saying it would cut off all electricity supplies and withhold food shipments to ensure it was not used to sustain Chechen fighters.

Russia, which sent ground forces into Chechnya last week following weeks of heavy air attacks, claims to have seized the plains north of the Terek River that make up the northern third of the republic.

The Russians may halt on the Terek's north banks, where troops have been fortifying positions. Moving across the river would bring the Russians into hilly territory where Chechnya's outnumbered fighters could make devastating guerrilla attacks.

After suffering a devastating defeat in the 1994-96 war, Russia wants to limit losses in the latest fighting, which began after Chechnya-based Islamic guerrillas invaded neighboring Dagestan in August and September.

The streets of Grozny were largely deserted Wednesday. Some food markets were operating, but most of the men on the streets were in military uniforms.

The wing of a Russian Su-25 war plane that was shot down was placed on a pedestal in the central square in Grozny. The plane was one of two that the Chechen fighters have brought down in recent days.

"I am happy that this aircraft was shot down," said a woman who gave her name only as Rosa. "It means the Russians can't bomb us with impunity."

Chechen fighters hit a Russian Sukhoi-24 late Monday with a missile near Urus-Martan, some 20 kilometers southwest of Grozny. The crew did not have time to eject and the plane crashed in an explosion.

The Russian air force acknowledged losing the plane, which was searching for the Sukhoi-25 attack plane that had gone down in the area a day earlier.

The Russians have been bombing Chechnya for several weeks, and many of the attacks have been concentrated in and around Grozny, destroying oil refineries, brick yards and suspected bases of Islamic militants.

The raids have prompted at least 125,000 civilians to flee Chechnya, with most of them heading to the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. The influx is straining resources in Ingushetia, an impoverished republic that had just over 300,000 people before the refugee flood began.

"The local hospitals ... just cannot provide the sick refugees with medical aid,'' Ingush President Ruslan Aushev said, Interfax reported. "Children sleep on the ground and have very few warm clothes."