Chechen rebels storm capital

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Chechen rebels last night appeared to have taken control of a third of Grozny, after launching their most intensive offensive for months in an attempt to steal the limelight from the Russian President Boris Yeltsin's efforts to settle the conflict.

After a second day of ferocious street fighting and heavy shelling in the wrecked capital, Russian reinforcements were streaming in to flush out the Chechens, who had seized more than 80 Russian construction workers as hostages and were reportedly trying to storm the city's television centre.

Medical teams were unable to reach the bodies littering the streets because of the intensity of the fighting, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

After promising Russians that he would solve the 15-month war before the presidential elections in June, Mr Yeltsin was yesterday faced with a worsening conflict that is threatening his poll prospects.

The Chechens appeared to have stepped up the attack to coincide with a meeting of the Russian Security Council to hammer out a solution to the war, in which some 30,000 lives have been lost. The president said after the meeting that he had a framework for a settlement, and promised to reveal more next month.

But as he spoke reports poured in of renewed fighting, in which Russian troops were under fire all across the city.

A force of between 500 and 1,000 rebels were in the city on the orders of the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, who is rumoured to have placed them under command of Shamil Basayev, who led the mass hostage-taking raid on a southern Russian town last year. Although most reporters were denied access, reports trickled out of battles around the city-centre headquarters of the regional government, and almost every Russian-occupied military post.

Reports also circulated that the rebels - who seized police stations, a hospital and a hostel - had cut off the Russian lines of communication, creating confusion in their ranks.

Thorn in Yeltsin's side, page 13