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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians: Troops in Central Grozny

URUS-MARTAN, Chechnya -- Russian troops claimed Tuesday to have finally broken through into central Grozny after weeks of ferocious fighting, and the army claimed that its forces would control the Chechen capital within days.

Taking the capital would be a major boost for the Russian forces, which have been fighting for weeks to take Grozny only to be beaten off by the much smaller, lightly armed rebel forces. While not confirming the Russian claims, Chechen commanders said there was heavy fighting in central Grozny.

Russian troops were pushing into the center from two directions and had established control over part of central Grozny, said Konstantin Kukharenko, a Defense Ministry spokesman.

Russian aircraft and artillery bombarded rebel positions as the Russian units advanced on the ground. Kukharenko claimed the Chechen capital would soon fall to Russian forces.

"The decisive phase of the liberation of Grozny has started," Kukharenko said. Federal commanders told Itar-Tass that three to four more days would be needed to take Grozny.

But another military spokesman, Valentin Astafyev, denied that any time frame had been set.

"Of course, we could have put an end to [the rebels] faster, but this would be linked to large losses among our troops and civilians, so we are avoiding such harsh actions," he said on NTV television.

The military's claims of progress Tuesday could not be immediately confirmed. There was no immediate indication that the estimated 2,000 well-entrenched rebels in Grozny had fled the city.

Russia has boasted several times that it was close to capturing Grozny, only to be driven back by the rebels, who have launched counterattacks in recent weeks in and around the capital.

Aslanbek Ismailov, the Chechens' deputy chief of staff, told Interfax fighting in the capital had dramatically intensified, with clashes reported in six separate districts. He said the Russians were trying to reach "the most strategically important" site in Grozny, a bridge crossing the Sundzha River that is a major route for rebels moving in the city.

The Russian push on Grozny followed days of massive airstrikes against the capital and rebel strongholds in the southern mountains.

Russian planes flew 150 combat missions in the last 24 hours, the military said Tuesday. Jets struck the Vedeno and Argun gorges, which lead through rebel-held mountains to Georgia, while helicopter gunships rocketed Grozny and towns still occupied by the rebels.

Colonel General Georgy Shpak, the Russian paratroops commander, said federal forces had blocked off all key towns and villages around the Argun and Vedeno gorges. He also said the Russians would soon take the town of Vedeno, a major rebel stronghold in the south, Itar-Tass reported.

Eight Russian soldiers were killed and 12 wounded in Chechnya over the past 24 hours, Astafyev told NTV. He said 60 rebels had been killed over the same period.

The claim could not be independently confirmed, but each side in the war tends to underestimate its own losses and overstate the other's.

In Russian-controlled areas, civilians continued to report attacks by Russian troops. On Tuesday, an Associated Press reporter saw three Russian helicopter gunships attack two cars near the city of Urus-Martan, killing two people and injuring three. It was not clear why the helicopters attacked the cars.

Meanwhile, a delegation from the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe traveled Tuesday to Dagestan, a southern region where Chechen-based militants staged armed incursions over the summer. After meeting with local officials in the regional capital, Makhachkala, the delegation headed to the region where the rebels had invaded to examine the damage, Itar-Tass said.

Also on Tuesday, an artillery shell exploded outside a court building in the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia. Police said the blast, which claimed no casualties, shattered windows in the Supreme Court building and several other nearby structures in Nazran, the regional capital.

The artillery shell was attached to a timer, and had been placed in a pile of trash close to the building, said Alekhan Mitigov, a duty officer at the Ingush Interior Ministry.

An hour before the noon blast, an anonymous caller tipped off police about an explosive in the building, but sappers and police dogs failed to locate it, he said. Still, people in the Supreme Court and neighboring buildings were evacuated.

Mitigov refused to comment on possible motives, saying police had launched an investigation. Itar-Tass said one scenario under consideration was that the bomb was intended to pressure the court in connection with a murder case it was to have heard Tuesday. The accused was identified only as Toimaskhanov, a Chechen resident.