Blitz launched on Grozny

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After more than two weeks of bloody slow-motion war in the snow, Russia yesterday threw armour, aircraft and artillery into battle on the outskirts of Grozny, launching what it called "real actions" to reconquer the renegade Muslim region of Chech nya.

Only a day after President Boris Yeltsin promised to avoid air attacks on civilians, witnesses in the besieged capital reported an evacuated orphanage destroyed and other buildings damaged in dawn air strikes.

"The storming of Grozny has begun," Movladi Udugov, the head of the Chechen information service, said from the sand-bagged presidential palace in the mangled capital. "They want to take the city but they won't." Officials in Moscow, however, denied having any plan to take the city in a single assault, though Russian forces have crossed the city boundary at several points. The government information office denied air raids had been launched on Grozny itself, quoting the Russian air force as saying: "We s trictly observe the orders of the President of Russia."

The Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, said yesterday that Moscow would use all force necessary but was ready to hold talks to settle the crisis.

Russia has said all along that it hit only strategic targets, blaming extensive bomb damage and civilian carnage - including a decapitated American journalist - on Chechen forces. A strike yesterday on the Grozny Children's Home Number One avoided deaths, according to news agency reports, only because infants had taken shelter in the basement.

Heavy casualties were reported, however, in Argun, on the eastern road to Grozny, and in the suburb of Khankala, site of a bomb-shattered military airport 3km east of the city. Helicopter gunships and fighter-bombers supported Russian ground troops. Itar-Tass, the official Russian news agency, said Moscow's forces had won control of Khankala and the village of Oktyabrskoe. "Today, Russian armed forces are carrying out real actions to move towards the outskirts of Grozny," the Moscow information office said.

The apparent advance follows a television speech by President Yeltsin on Tuesday in which he ordered forces of the Russian Defence and Interior ministries to "spare no effort" to remove the Chechen regime of Dzhokhar Dudayev and crush a three-year separatist rebellion on Russia's southern rim. Though the hardest battle for the centre of Grozny still lies ahead, Moscow yesterday detailed plans for a new provisional administration for the region to be headed by Nikolai Yegorov, a hard-line deputy prime mi nister who has urged a rapid assault on the city.

The uncompromising tone was stiffened further by Oleg Lobov, secretary of the hawkish Security Council that has directed an operation begun on 11 December when three columns of armour poured into Chechnya. "Grozny will be freed from illegal armed forces,mercenaries and criminals," he said.

Isolated Yeltsin, page 8