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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fighting Rages on Grozny Outskirts

SOUTHERN CHECHNYA -- Russian soldiers trying to edge their way into Grozny met stiff resistance Monday from entrenched rebels, but the Defense Ministry said its troops seized a civilian airport on the city's outskirts.

The Russian military headquarters said federal troops were probing rebel positions in Grozny with small reconnaissance teams, drawing enemy fire to better locate the rebels' defenses, Interfax said.

Aslanbek Ismailov, the Chechen first deputy commander, told Interfax that a federal battalion was attempting to carry out reconnaissance, but ran into an ambush. "The federal battalion had to retreat to its previous position,'' he said.

Itar-Tass reported that a group of 300 Chechen fighters tried to break through the Russian encirclement in Grozny's southwest but were pushed back into the city by federal troops after a heavy firefight. The Russian military command said 60 rebels were killed in the fight and eight Russian servicemen lost their lives, Interfax reported. The casualty figures could not be independently confirmed. Both sides routinely minimize their own losses and exaggerate the other side's.

The southern part of Grozny has been under intense shelling from Russian jets and artillery. Government commanders said fighting was taking place just north, south and east of Grozny.

In the clashes on the southern edge of Grozny, neither side appeared to make significant gains. Both occupied high points on the outskirts. There was constant fire from mortars, artillery and small arms.

The British Broadcasting Corporation quoted residents of a Russian-occupied village as saying Russian troops had "summarily executed" 41 people there earlier this month, an allegation sure to spark outrage abroad.

"This is nonsense and an information provocation," a Defense Ministry spokesman said by telephone. "Troops are not fighting the peaceful population."

The BBC said it had seen no physical evidence of the killings in Alkhan-Yurt but its correspondent, who visited the village, heard heart-breaking testimony from villagers.

Local people spoke of the discovery of decapitated corpses and of grenades being tossed into cellars where civilians had sought shelter.

Over the weekend in Grozny, Reuters reporter Maria Eismont said she and other reporters witnessed heavy fighting near a television tower in a southern district.

The journalists saw the bodies of seven Russian soldiers, and Chechen fighters said there were about 40 more bodies in no man's land. Chechen rebel losses appeared to be light.

RIA news agency quoted Russian military sources as saying operations to seize Grozny would begin later this week using army and police commando units and pro-Moscow Chechen militia.

The other focus of fighting was the mountains to the south.

Last week, Russia dropped several hundred paratroopers onto mountaintops guarding the main route into Georgia, Chechnya's only frontier with a foreign country, in a bold move to block the rebels' escape and cut supply routes.

On Monday, Interfax quoted Mumadi Saidayev, a top Chechen commander, as saying guerrillas had crushed the paratroopers and reopened the road. Russia said attacks by militants had failed and the road was still blocked.

"Rebels attempted to gain control of this strategic road on several occasions, but were confronted with organized resistance and had to retreat, having suffered serious losses,'' the Russian Defense Ministry press service said.

Russia also said it sent marines into Chechnya from Dagestan, a Russian republic to the east, as part of the operation to surround the rebels in mountain gorges.

The Russian military claimed late Monday to have taken control of the Severny airport. But fighting is too heavy for Russia to be likely to try to land planes in Grozny.

It was impossible to know how many residents were still trapped in the city, but there were clearly thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, living in dark cellars with little food.