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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Tricolor Raised in Grozny

URUS-MARTAN, Chechnya -- Acting President Vladimir Putin declared the long and ruinous battle for Grozny over, saying the last rebel positions have been conquered and the Russian flag had been raised over the center of the Chechen capital.

"We've taught them a very good lesson. The terrorists have suffered irreparable damage and in this sense you can speak of a turning point," Putin said during an interview with ORT television broadcast Monday.

"What's next? There has to be a full annihilation of large bandit formations. ... And then we will switch to a planned withdrawal of military units from Chechnya while simultaneously deploying one of the divisions of the armed forces there on a permanent basis."

Fighting still raged elsewhere in the breakaway region as the shelling, bombing and combat that has all but destroyed Grozny shifted to towns and villages west and south of the city, along routes of rebel retreat.

Federal forces claimed Monday to have killed hundreds of Chechen rebels trying to make a break for southern Chechnya and join militants intent on conducting a protracted hit-and-run campaign against Russia.

About 300 militants have been killed in combat near the villages of Katyr-Yurt and Shaami-Yurt over the last two days, said Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's chief spokesman on Chechnya. "Militants have left their comrades' bodies on the battlefield, having no time to dig graves for them," he said at news conference in Moscow.

The Defense Ministry said some rebels had commandeered about 15 trucks from villagers in Gekhi-Chu, but that the militants were destroyed as they left the village.

Images of Grozny broadcast on Russian television showed World War II-like destruction, as tanks and armored vehicles rolled down streets lined with blasted and burned-out buildings. Houses were battered into misshapen hulks and roads were deserted.

General Gennady Troshev, one of Russia's top commanders, toured the city Sunday and said he had trouble finding intact buildings to use as command posts. After more than five months of bombing and shelling, "the city is ruined," he said.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said in an interview published Monday that his forces would concentrate on guerrilla warfare now but would return to Grozny later.

"For the time being, we have given up [Grozny]," Maskhadov was quoted as saying in the Spanish daily La Vanguardia. "We will conquer it later."

Russian authorities were moving to restore services in the ruined capital. Russian television Monday showed a new military field kitchen that was set up in the city center. Children, women and elderly men who had spent the last five months huddled in city basements to avoid air and artillery bombardment and street battles were given plates of buckwheat porridge, bread and hot tea.

The Emergency Situations Ministry was preparing to open soup kitchens and first-aid posts in two Grozny neighborhoods Tuesday, Itar-Tass reported.

Rebel fighters who withdrew from Grozny last week have acknowledged by far their worst losses yet. Many were killed and wounded crossing minefields, and survivors have fanned out into Russian-held villages in the western lowlands.

Among those killed were at least three senior rebel commanders. Video footage obtained over the weekend shows Chechen doctors in a village operating on Shamil Basayev, Russia's most wanted man, whose foot was blown off.

Hundreds of Chechen rebels were captured during the last days of the battle for Grozny and the Russian sweeps of western Chechen villages that followed.

Justice Minister Yury Chaika said at a news conference that more than 500 Chechen guerrillas had been captured so far, of whom 234 had been released. More than 220 were still being held in Chechnya and 42 had beentaken to other places.

Chaika said Russia should extend an amnesty it has offered to fighters who surrender, because "among the rebels are many who were led astray," Interfax reported.

RTR state television showed pictures of a dark room packed with Chechen men, many of whom were wounded, which it described as a jail for suspected Chechen fighters. Russian troops fingerprinted and questioned them.

But despite heavy losses in fleeing Grozny, the militants appear to have firm control of several regions in the mountainous south. Yastrzhembsky put the number of militants in the mountains at between 5,000 and 8,000.