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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yastrzhembsky: No Talks With Rebel

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the man Russia charged with improving the image of its military campaign in Chechnya, made his debut appearance Wednesday and ruled out talks with the rebel region's leader.

Yastrzhembsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor, was appointed by acting President Vladimir Putin last week to handle the tricky task of coordinating the flow of information on Russia's military offensive in Chechnya.

Yastrzhembsky ruled out talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, saying the leader did not have control over the region.

"The man was elected in disregard of the laws of the Russian Federation. He does not control the situation on the territory of the Chechen republic and therefore has no legal authority," Yastrzhembsky said.

Western European states have called for talks with Maskhadov, a relative moderate elected in January 1997 in voting to which the Kremlin at the time gave its de facto blessing.

After his election the secretary of Russia's Security Council welcomed the poll and attended Maskhadov's inauguration in Grozny.

Yastrzhembsky also said he was not ready to publish lists of soldiers killed.

"While the operation is going on to destroy the bandits, there is always the threat of reprisals, for example, against family members of the soldiers," he said.

He said he would take steps to enable reporters to cover the campaign without endangering their lives.

Rebels using grenade-launchers and sniper rifles attacked Russian troops from all sides in the Chechen capital on Wednesday, trying to thwart the federal forces from advancing on a strategic square in central Grozny.

In spite of the Russians' stalled progress, military commanders continued to give an upbeat assessment of the month-old push to take the Chechen capital.

The approximately 3,000 rebels remaining in Grozny "have nowhere to go and their backs are against the wall,'' said General Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of the General Staff.

In spite of heavy snow and fog, Russian warplanes bombed the city, where Russian troops have been struggling for eight days to penetrate the center.

Manilov told a news conference in Moscow that federal aircraft and artillery were targeting only about 30 percent of the buildings in Grozny - including administrative buildings and high-rises - because civilians were believed to be taking shelter in the rest.

"We are trying to minimize the losses among peaceful civilians in the course of the anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya,'' he said.

Manilov said civilian deaths in Chechnya were in the hundreds rather than the thousands claimed by the Chechens, who say the Russians are bombing and shelling indiscriminately.

Fierce fighting engulfed bomb-shattered districts of eastern Grozny, which the Russians had previously claimed to control. The Russians appeared to have made no progress toward seizing a key objective, Minutka Square, from the rebels. The square, near a Russian-held bridge across the Sunzha River that bisects the city, could give Russian forces substantial leverage for moving into downtown Grozny.

In the other major center of rebel resistance, the southern mountains, Russian forces dealt heavy air and artillery strikes Wednesday on suspected rebel bases in the Argun and Vedeno gorges.

The gorges are corridors through the mountains. The Russians believe that reinforcements and rebel supplies are coming through the gorges, some of them from Georgia, the only foreign country that borders on Chechnya.

The military command said Wednesday that Russian aircraft had flown 150 combat missions over the past 24 hours throughout Chechnya, and that seven soldiers had been killed.