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Friday, November 12, 1999 Published at 12:18 GMT

World: Europe

Russia takes Chechnya's second city

Russian soldiers preparing to move into Gudermes

Russian troops backed by tanks and artillery have moved into Chechnya's second city, tightening their hold on the breakaway region.

Battle for the Caucasus
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said federal forces were "sweeping'' the city of Gudermes. "The Russian flag has been raised there," he added.

The assault came only hours after Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov made a fresh appeal to Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin to open talks on ending the war, now in its tenth week.

Mr Maskhadov's office said more than 4,100 people had been killed and 8,500 wounded in the conflict.

Refugees continue to flee the fighting. About 200,000 refugees have poured into neighbouring Ingushetia, where many are living in desperate conditions as winter beings to bite.

The BBC's Orla Guerin : "The Kremlin can't be sure who it's killing"
As troops entered Gudermes, a senior Russian commander said the military could wrap up operations against separatist rebels in Chechnya by the end of the year.

General Valery Manilov, Russia's deputy chief of staff, said troops in Gudermes would co-operate closely with the local population to conduct a "mopping up operation".

Chechen military commanders say there are more than 1,000 rebels in the city ready to defend it.

But Moscow puts the figure at less than 100 and says pro-Russian residents will join federal forces to help wipe them out.

Click here to see a map of the region

General Manilov said a similar operation was being considered for the capital Grozny.

[ image: Chechen fighters stake out Russian positions near Bamut]
Chechen fighters stake out Russian positions near Bamut
"We are talking about liberating Grozny of bandits and terrorists. This can be done while avoiding a full-on storming," he added.

The general suggested residents would help the Russians take the city because they were tired of the fighting.

"If everything goes according to the plans made, the liquidation of the main components of [Chechen] militant formations may be finished by the end of the year," he told Russia's NTV network.

Air raids

General Manilov was speaking after Chechnya suffered another night of bombardment. The air force said it had made more than 50 sorties since Thursday morning.

Four military bases, a fuel depot, a weapons depot and a communications centre were destroyed during the air raids, it said.

The Russian military also released new casualty figures for its forces, saying about 280 troops had been killed and 600 wounded since early September. The death toll last week was about 150 soldiers.

Moscow says its campaign in Chechnya is aimed at liquidating Islamic rebels based in the breakaway republic. It blames them for invasions into Dagestan and bomb attacks on Russian apartment blocks which have left around 300 people dead.

Referring to civilian casualties in Chechnya, the Kremlin on Thursday conceded for the first time that its forces had committed "tragic errors".

It has so far issued no response to an open letter issued by President Maskhadov on Thursday in which he proposed to President Yeltsin "that we stop before major battles and heavy losses."

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