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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Troops Fight Their Way to Grozny




GROZNY -- Russian tanks and soldiers battled their way Tuesday to the edge of Grozny as federal artillery and jets blasted targets across the breakaway republic in some of the heaviest fighting in weeks.


Chechen fighters fought the Russians about 4 kilometers from the city's outskirts on the north side of Grozny with more fighting to the east of the city. Elite Russian reconnaissance troops reportedly pushed deeper into the city, but this could not be confirmed.


Russian jets and artillery bombarded at least seven towns and settlements across Chechnya on Tuesday, officers on both sides said.


Window panes rattled almost incessantly in Grozny from the Russian cannonade. Many residents of the battered capital were gripped with fear and hopelessness.


"Many of those who have stayed in Grozny feel doomed," resident Asya Lalayeva said, complaining that officials in both the Russian and Chechen governments "see them as raw material."


The day's fiercest assaults were in the Terek Ridge area, strategically important heights northwest of Grozny's airport. Up to 200 Russian tanks and self-propelled guns were firing shells in the assault, General Mumadi Saidayev, a top Chechen military official, said.


The Chechens claimed they had knocked out several tanks and inflicted heavy losses on a Russian column advancing to Grozny from the southeast, but no independent confirmation could be made.


Chechen officials also reported that Russian troops seized the town of Sernovodsk, about 45 kilometers west of Grozny, and that heavy fighting was continuing in Gudermes, a large city 35 kilometers east of Grozny.


Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov told reporters that heavy fighting was also taking place in Tolstoy-Yurt, north of Grozny, but admitted that Chechen fighters could do little against the numerically superior Russians in that relatively open region.


Saidayev said his fighters were longing for the Russians to enter Grozny, where Chechen guerrillas inflicted severe losses on the Russian army in street fighting during the 1994-96 Chechen war. "But they won't do it because they know that they would be crushed," he said.


Saidayev said Chechen fighters have built significant defenses around the city, including concrete bunkers.


Russian officials have given mixed signals about whether they plan to storm Grozny in their campaign to wipe out Islamic militants based in Chechnya. After early successes, the Russian military now appears to be trying to occupy all of the republic and end its de facto independence.


Chechen commanders said Tuesday they believe the Russians want to take Grozny's airport and set up headquarters there in preparation for winter.


"The airport is a very convenient place to stay during the winter. Russians are apparently trying to settle in there ... because they would feel very uncomfortable staying on the Terek Ridge for a long time," Saidayev said.


Casualties in the latest fighting are unknown. The Russians say they have lost some 200 soldiers and killed 2,000 militants overall, while the Chechens claim to have lost far fewer fighters and killed many Russians.


General Magomed Khambiyev, a senior Chechen commander, said any Russian attempt to encircle Grozny would fail because Chechen forces would be able to penetrate the federal lines. Some Russian commanders have indicated they intend to besiege Grozny and starve the rebel government into submission.


"But I don't doubt that they won't be able to blockade Grozny," Khambiyev said in an interview.


The Chechen forces had adequate food and supplies, Chechen Vice President Khamza Shidayev said. "There is no basis to scream SOS even though Chechnya is blockaded from all around. In any case, we have enough food supplies to last until spring," he said in another interview.


But the few civilians left in Grozny have little food. There is also no electricity or natural gas in the city, and people have to pump water from outdoor wells despite the danger of shelling and air attack.


Maskhadov said he saw little chance of ending the conflict through talks. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other officials have rejected talks.


"It's useless to speak with Putin ... he's working for his image," Maskhadov said.


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The Federal Security Service, or FSB, said Tuesday there is a $1 million reward for the delivery of Chechen commander Shamil Basayev.


"The important thing is that he must be delivered live and unharmed. An investigation and sentence are awaiting the gangster. That amount could also be paid for precise information on the whereabouts of the gangster," Interfax quoted FSB spokesman Alexander Zdanovich as saying.


The $1 million will not come from the federal budget but will be collected by "patriotically-minded entrepreneurs and businessmen," Zdanovich said.