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Rob Parsons in Mozdok, North Ossetia
"The human cost of the conflict is mounting daily"
 real 28k

William Horsley reports from Moscow
"A major shake-up of the security services is expected soon"
 real 28k

Saturday, 8 January, 2000, 16:11 GMT
Russians hold their fire

Russian troops Russian troops on the road to Grozny

Russia's acting president Vladimir Putin has temporarily halted the aerial and artillery bombardment of the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Battle for the Caucasus
Mr Putin said the respite had been ordered for humanitarian reasons - but he vowed that the drive to wipe out what Moscow calls terrorists would continue.

Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas on Friday while Muslims are preparing to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

"Our aims remain unchanged and they will be achieved," Mr Putin told reporters at a Christmas service in Moscow.

Mr Putin attends a Christmas service in Moscow Mr Putin attends a Christmas service in Moscow

"As for Grozny, remember what day it is now for Orthodox Christians and tomorrow for Muslims. We will not forget that and we will respect the feelings of believers."

Thousands of civilians are believed to be still sheltering in the cellars of the city, but the BBC's Robert Parsons, reporting from the Russian military headquarters at Mozdok, says it is unlikely that many will take the opportunity to leave.

He says there is a growing feeling that Russian forces are gearing up for a major push on Grozny, and that the present pause is an opportunity for the troops to reorganise.

Sacking denial

Mr Putin denied that key military personnel had been removed from their posts, saying there were no changes and none were planned.

They are preparing Russian society for a new defeat and big losses
Rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov

His remarks caused surprise because a senior general had earlier announced a reorganisation of officers in charge of the Chechen campaign.

Lieutenant-General Gennady Troshev, deputy commander of Russian troops in Chechnya, told a news conference on Friday that he had been moved from commander of Russia's eastern forces in Chechnya to become deputy commander of the combined Russian forces in the North Caucasus.

General Troshev said that another commander, Major-General Vladimir Shamanov, had been transferred and replaced by his deputy as part of the reshuffle.

Correspondents say political pressure on the military to deliver a quick victory is increasing.

And Chechen rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov said the apparent confusion reflected Russian military setbacks in recent fighting.

"This announcement about the changes ... leads directly to the thought that they are preparing Russian society for a new defeat and big losses," he said by satellite telephone.

Russians bogged down

Russia launched its military campaign in September after blaming a series of deadly apartment bombings in Russia on Chechnya-based Islamic militants.

The ground assault on Grozny started in earnest on Christmas Day after a sustained air attack aimed at weakening the city's defences.

Russian officials widely predicted the battle for the capital would be a short one.

One general said it would be a matter of days and Mr Putin, the then prime minister, said before the assault started that the end of the campaign was close.

But Russian troops have become bogged down in bitter street fighting, raising fears of a repeat of their defeat in the same city in 1996.

The United Nations refugee agency has been told by the authorities in neighbouring Ingushetia that 70,000 Chechen refugees have returned to Russian-controlled northern areas of the republic.

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See also:
08 Jan 00 |  Media reports
Russia media criticise Chechen campaign
25 Nov 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Russia's fighting tactics
24 Oct 99 |  Europe
The first bloody battle for Grozny
07 Jan 00 |  Europe
Refugees return to Chechnya
06 Jan 00 |  Europe
Russian army battered in Grozny
28 Dec 99 |  Europe
Russia gains 'upper hand' in Grozny

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