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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Snipers Hold Back Russian Offensive

GROZNY -- Chechen snipers pinned down Russian troops trying to advance in the shattered streets of Grozny on Thursday, even as tanks and helicopter gunships blasted the high-rise buildings where the sharpshooters were holed up.

The Defense Ministry said a Russian general had gone missing in the Chechen capital over the past day. Major General Mikhail Malofeyev, head of a combat training unit, was not listed among the dead or those taken prisoner by the rebels, a ministry spokesman said. Officers in Grozny said that Malofeyev had disappeared three days ago, when his unit was ambushed in Grozny.

Meanwhile, the federal forces claimed to be making progress toward taking Grozny. Lieutenant General Stanislav Kavun said the troops had taken control "over a considerable part" of the Chechen capital, Itar-Tass reported. He said there were just about 700 rebels - as opposed to other estimates of about 2,000 - and that they were "suffering heavy losses."

Russian officers had said in recent days that Russia was just days away from establishing full control over Grozny. However, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Thursday the goal was not to meet any particular deadline, "but to completely eliminate the rebels and minimize casualties among Russian soldiers," Interfax reported.

The military said four soldiers had been killed in Chechnya over the past 24 hours, but Interfax, citing informed sources, reported that 23 servicemen had been killed and 53 wounded. The report could not be confirmed.

However, some officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that about 20 members of a single regiment in northwestern Grozny had been killed when rebels sneaked through sewage tunnels to strike the Russians in the rear.

Heavy air and artillery bombardment didn't seem to slow the hail of bullets from the Chechen snipers' rifles, and Russian reconnaissance reported the rebels had built a series of bunkers behind the apartment buildings they occupied. Some Russian soldiers complained that their equipment was outdated.

"It's useless to pound the rebels with shells dating back to 1952," growled Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Tsybin, who was watching a tank bombardment in the Mikrorayon-3 district of northwest Grozny. "These shells produce only noise and have very little destructive power. I haven't seen newer shells, say at least from the 1980s, used here."

An estimated 10,000 to 25,000 civilians are thought to still be in Grozny. Most are trying to save themselves by hiding in dark, unheated basements.

There are no estimates of how many civilians have been killed or wounded during the battles for Grozny. No municipal services are working, and doctors and nurses operate in makeshift clinics.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch group on Thursday accused Russian soldiers of raping Chechen women in Russian-controlled areas of Chechnya. Citing interviews with refugees who had spoken with the victims or seen their dead bodies, Human Rights Watch described rapes in Shali and Alkhan-Yurt.

"Rape is a war crime, and these allegations about rape in Chechnya are very serious," Human Rights Watch staffer Regan Ralph said in a press release.

The suffering of Chechen civilians has prompted international criticism of Russia's offensive, and the Council of Europe is planning to debate Russia's handling of the war Jan. 27.

Lord Russel-Johnston, president of the council's parliamentary assembly who headed a fact-finding mission to the war zone this week, said Thursday that Russia's suspension now looked "more likely than before we arrived."