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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Troops Take Gudermes

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared Friday that Russia's flag was again flying over a key Chechen town as Moscow came under renewed Western pressure to halt its seven-week offensive against the rebel region.

Cranking up the diplomatic tension, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev accused the United States of stirring up the Chechen conflict, while in Helsinki, Finland, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov rejected an offer from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to help end the fighting.

On the ground in Chechnya, operations to clear Gudermes, the republic's second largest town, began early Friday as villages on the road to Grozny were shelled and bombed intensively.

"The Russian flag has been raised over the town," Putin said. Gudermes, located in the east of Chechnya, is the first major population center to be reoccupied by Russian troops since they were forced from Chechnya after the 1994-96 war.

NTV television showed soldiers, watched by a few residents, fanning out through Gudermes, which Russia's representative in Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, said might become the new capital, replacing Grozny, seat of separatist President Aslan Maskhadov.

The first deputy head of Russia's general staff, Valery Manilov, told NTV the local population in Gudermes was welcoming his troops and helping them to reclaim control.

Manilov said the tactics used in Gudermes might also be used for Grozny. "The question is to clear, free Grozny of terrorists and bandits. This can be done without a frontal, head-on storming of Grozny," he said.

Interfax news agency quoted Russian military sources as saying the troops had approached the outskirts of the town of Argun, an eastern gateway to Grozny situated just 15 kilometers from the city.

Refugees continued streaming back and forth across Chechnya's border with the Russian province of Ingushetia, where many of the conflict's 200,000 refugees are housed in tents and other makeshift accommodations. The border was reopened last week after being closed for about 10 days.

The plight of the refugees has stirred Western concern about the conflict, but Ivanov, on his visit to Helsinki, shrugged off an offer to mediate by the OSCE.

"Ivanov said he doesn't see a political role for the OSCE at this stage," Norwegian Foreign Minister and current OSCE Chairman Knut Vollebaek said after meeting the minister.

Putin's spokesman, Mikhail Kozh-ukov, said the premier would join President Bill Clinton and other leaders in Istanbul, Turkey, next week for a summit of the 54-nation OSCE. Chechnya is likely to top the agenda, although Russia calls it an internal matter.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and European Union foreign ministers, meeting Monday, are set to launch renewed efforts to persuade Moscow to end the fighting.

In Tokyo, Annan told journalists he would discuss humanitarian aid to Chechnya with Russian officials.

"I'm doing some things quietly and privately with Russian officials and those will continue," he added.

British Foreign Minister Robin Cook said EU foreign ministers will consider making a joint appeal to Moscow to find a political solution to the crisis. He said he and his Dutch and German counterparts would make the proposal to a meeting of EU foreign ministers Monday in Brussels, Belgium.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer called the war "a big mistake."

"I fear that they will destabilize the region," he told reporters in Berlin.

Interfax quoted Maskhadov as saying he wanted "a joint struggle [with Russia] against banditism and terrorism." Moscow says he must first hand over the guerrilla leaders.

Taking advantage of Friday's clearer weather, Russian artillery and warplanes pounded the villages of Bamut, Stary Achkhoi, Gekhi and Shalazhi to the southwest of Grozny. The capital also came under heavy fire, witnesses said.

Reuters Television footage showed a group of Chechens, mostly women, fleeing over snow-clad mountains into the neighboring republic of Georgia.

"They bomb us every day. Why? Are we women and children also bandits?" asked one woman, cradling a baby.