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Wednesday, October 27, 1999 Published at 05:41 GMT 06:41 UK

World: Europe

Chechens defy Russian assault

Russian aircraft are continuing to bombard the Chechen capital

The Chechen Government has reacted defiantly to Russian efforts to tighten its military grip on the capital, Grozny.

Battle for the Caucasus
In an interview with the BBC, a spokesman for the Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, acknowledged that Grozny had been hit by a heavy rocket attack, but denied Russian forces had surrounded the city.

The spokesman, Zaur Tsitsayev, said Chechens would keep on fighting and the Russians would give up, just as they did in the previous conflict three years ago.

"Russia has power, but has no spirit to fight," he said.

He said President Maskhadov had offered peace talks if Russian forces withdrew. He added that more than 3,000 civilians had been killed and about 8,000 wounded in the fighting.

Such reports of heavy casualties, although unconfirmed, have caused increasing concern in the international community about the plight of Chechen civilians.

Calls for dialogue

[ image: A refugee waits to leave as a Russian APC rolls past]
A refugee waits to leave as a Russian APC rolls past
More than 180,000 refugees are thought to have fled to neighbouring republics, and the European Union has asked the UN to speed up relief efforts before the bitter Chechen winter sets in.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, urged Russia "not to repeat the mistakes of the past in Chechnya, and instead to open a dialogue toward a peaceful resolution with legitimate Chechen partners".

For its part, Russia has expressed confidence that the campaign is going as expected.

"The situation is developing strictly according to plan," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said.

"Everything remains under the president's and the government's control."

Fierce fighting was reported on the outskirts of the Chechen capital on Tuesday as Russian federal artillery pounded rebel positions around the city for a second day.

A Russian NTV correspondent at federal army headquarters in the region reported exchanges of gunfire between federal "reconnaissance teams" and "militants" in outlying districts of Grozny.

Islamic guerrillas

The report, if confirmed, would mark the first fighting inside the city since Moscow began its campaign to root out Islamic guerrillas in the breakaway republic a month ago.

Previously, federal troops have been stationed on hills surrounding Grozny's suburbs, pounding them with mortar and artillery fire.

[ image: Russian commanders say the campaign is going according to plan]
Russian commanders say the campaign is going according to plan
On Tuesday, troops and armoured vehicles holding a ridge 10km (six miles) north of the capital could be seen heading south-east to a main road that runs by Grozny airport and into the city.

"The airport is a very convenient place to stay during the winter," said Chechen chief of staff, Mumadi Saidayev.

"The Russians are apparently trying to settle in there."

Elsewhere in the republic, Russian jets and artillery are reported to have bombarded at least seven towns and settlements. A BBC correspondent in Moscow says the Kremlin cannot be certain that no civilians remain in those areas.

Night raids

Chechen gunmen said they had killed a number of Russian soldiers in overnight raids on Russian camps in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. They said a further 43 were also killed near the town of Gudermes, 30km east of Grozny.

The Russians denied any casualties, but said they had killed 20 Chechen "terrorists".

Russian commanders have refused to comment on speculation that a full-scale ground assault on the Chechen capital is imminent, saying only that they plan to take control of the city "sooner or later".

A senior general in the region, Gennady Troshev, has been quoted as saying the ring around Chechnya would be gradually tightened until the whole republic was brought under Russian control.

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