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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Grozny Assault Hits Fierce Resistance




On the third day of a "special operation" launched to liberate Grozny, Russian forces on Monday appeared to be bogging down in the face of unexpectedly fierce rebel resistance.


Russian artillery and jets kept up their onslaught on Grozny, while ground troops - with pro-Moscow Chechen irregulars in the vanguard - traded fire with rebels.


"The advance of the Russian troops is very difficult," the Defense Ministry told the Itar-Tass news agency on Sunday. "Practically at all crucial points the rebels have established strong positions."


A senior rebel leader, Isa Numunayev, told the Interfax news agency that the fighting over the weekend was comparable in intensity to the fiercest battles of the 1994-96 Chechen war. Russia's NTV television network reported that the militants had constructed a network of fortified trenches near the southwestern part of the city, which has slowed the Russian advance.


Chechen fighters under Bislan Gantamirov - the former mayor of Grozny who was freed last month from a Russian jail - came up against heavy fire as they moved into Grozny on Monday, with both sides taking losses, Interfax reported.


Up to 45,000 cold and hungry civilians remained trapped on the third day of a Russian onslaught to capture the city.


Interfax quoted pro-Moscow paramilitaries, spearheading a methodical advance on key areas, as saying they were baffled by the intensity of rebel resistance.


Gantamirov told Interfax from the embattled capital that despite stiffening resistance, his men were fighting their way toward city center, trying to split the rebel forces in two.


"One group is moving from the Staropromyslovsky district [in the northwest of the city], the other - from the Rodina farm through Staraya Sunzha [in the east]," he said, adding he had no doubt Grozny would fall before the end of the year.


But his close aides were not so sure. They told Interfax there were at least 2,000 well-armed rebels in the city and taking it before the end of the year might be a problem.


The commander of a pro-Moscow Chechen faction, Malik Saidullayev, said there were 5,000 rebel fighters in Grozny, who had "sworn on the Koran that as long as they're alive, they won't leave," Itar-Tass reported.


Russia tried to seize Grozny on New Year's Eve five years ago, so retaking it by that date would have important symbolic resonance.


Nevertheless, federal commanders have repeatedly vowed not to repeat the mistakes of the 1994-96 war in Chechnya, when Russian troops raced to the center of Grozny and were cut off and destroyed.


Instead, Russian forces hope to advance methodically through the city, calling in devastating artillery and air strikes when they encounter resistance.


After three days of fighting in Grozny's streets, it was impossible to confirm what territory the Russian forces actually controlled or how many soldiers the military had lost.


Islamic rebels said they have killed hundreds of Russian troops, but Russian authorities have only acknowledged the death of six of their soldiers in the bitter fighting in Grozny.


Little is also known about the fate of the tens of thousands of residents who are trapped in the battle zone. As many as 50,000 civilians are still believed to be hiding in basement shelters in Grozny, according to Russian officials.


While Gantamirov and his men said Monday that some 50 Chechens had been killed over the past 24 hours, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said four Russian soldiers had been killed in Grozny over the same period.


Meanwhile, the Chechnya-friendly Kavkaz-Tsentr information center posted a statement on its web site (www.kavkaz.org) claiming that more than 600 Russian soldiers had been killed on Sunday in the region of Grozny, while Chechen forces had had five killed and nine wounded.


Both sides regularly exaggerate their enemies' losses and downplay their own.


NTV television on Sunday raised the possibility that Russian losses were mounting during the assault on Grozny.


Since a Dec. 16 incident when a Russian armored column was reportedly wiped out in Grozny's Minutka Square, Russia has lost hundreds of its soldiers in its attempts to first probe and then take the Chechen capital, the station's flagship "Itogi" program reported Sunday, citing material reported by Radio Liberty's Chechnya correspondent Andrei Babitsky.


The Russian government has denied several reports of major losses, including those about Minutka Square, which it has derided as a fabrication.


Correspondents at the scene Dec. 16 in Grozny from both AP and Reuters reported that at least 100 Russian soldiers had died in the attack.


Meanwhile, after meeting with President Boris Yeltsin on Monday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the attack on Grozny was going as expected.


"We will do what we have said we will do," he said.


Putin has said recently that Russia's campaign to retake control of Chechnya will be completed soon, but the government has avoided naming a date.


Some Russian commanders said that the Chechen capital was no longer a main target and that the army was now focusing its efforts elsewhere.


In a new attempt to crush rebel forces, Russian jets dropped aerosol bombs on rebel bases and fortifications in southern Chechnya, Interfax reported. The bombs release a large cloud of inflammable gas and cause massive explosions that can clear out bunkers and other fortifications.


In the south, insurgent forces were fighting Russian troops for control of Vedeno and Kharachoi, located along a major road to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, as well as several smaller towns in the south, Defense Ministry spokesman Sergei Zhuk said.


"Grozny will soon be mopped up, but it is not the matter of primary concern for us," Zhuk said. "The most important thing for the federal troops is the southern direction, as the majority of the rebels went there."


Russia has shrugged off Western criticism of its use of force in Chechnya, saying the actions were appropriate for the enemy it confronted. On Sunday, a U.S. administration official repeated a warning the campaign could isolate Russia.


But Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov played down the dispute with the West.


"I do not overdramatize the situation, because even in alliances like NATO and the European Union, serious disagreements do happen," he said after meeting with Yeltsin.


"Our main task for 2000 is not to allow increased influence of those forces which seek to isolate Russia, using Chechnya as a pretext," he said.