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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Grozny Will Fall Within Days, Say Russians

GROZNY -- Chechen rebels claimed to have repulsed Russian ground attacks in fierce fighting Wednesday amid the ruins of the capital shattered by weeks of savage air and artillery bombardments.

A senior Russian commander predicted Grozny would fall within days, but the confident rebels say they are confronting the Russians head-on. The Russian military's march across Chechnya so far has faced limited resistance from the outgunned militants, who have repeatedly retreated rather than wage full-scale ground battles.

Plumes of black smoke rose over the city's devastated center as salvos of Russian shells screamed overhead, exploding in bright flashes of red and orange. The streets were deserted, with nobody daring to move outside.

Lechi Islamov, a senior Chechen commander in Grozny, said rebel forces had repulsed six Russian ground attacks in the north and southeast of the city during the past 24 hours. But the Russians were still attacking, he said.

Several thousand militants are well-entrenched in the battered capital, where they have been preparing for weeks for a Russian assault. Despite the heavy Russian artillery fire, the Chechen fighters appeared to be holding their own from fortified positions.

The Chechen fighters have a wealth of experience in guarding against Russian attacks on Grozny.

However, if Russia's superior firepower overwhelms the rebels, as many predict, the militants will retreat to the mountains of southern Chechnya and wage guerrilla warfare from remote outposts. The strategy worked extremely well for the Chechens in the previous conflict, and ultimately led to the Russian withdrawal in 1996.

Russian commanders said their forces were fighting on the edges of Grozny and had pushed the rebels back in some areas. Much of the city was leveled during the previous war, and more buildings have been reduced to rubble in recent weeks.

In Moscow, a top military official predicted that Grozny would be taken in "a matter of days," and that the Russians would completely defeat the militants by February.

Russian forces now control 60 percent of Chechnya, and it will take two to three months to defeat the estimated 12,000 to 15,000 rebels throughout the breakaway republic, said General Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of the General Staff.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the Russians would first complete the "anti-terrorist operation" and then look to solve "political problems by political means." Putin made his comments in a telephone conversation with his Finnish counterpart, Paavo Lipponen, according to Putin's spokesman Mikhail Kuzhukhov.

The Chechen commander, Islamov, said some 7,000 rebel fighters were in Grozny. But rebel groups outside the city are finding it difficult to send reinforcements and supplies through the Russian lines encircling the city.

Anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 hungry civilians are believed trapped in the city, many too old and infirm to make the dangerous journey through Russian shelling out of the capital.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said almost 3,000 civilians had left the city since Saturday, Itar-Tass reported. But reporters say they have seen only small numbers of people straggling out.