Caught in the middle of the fighting were up to 50,000 civilians, according to Russia's Deputy Prime Minister, Nikolai Koshman. Before the battle started, the Russian authorities had been trying to persuade women, children and the elderly to leave down special "humanitarian corridors". But Mr Koshman said now it was safer for them to stay put in their basements until the city was "liberated".
The Russian push into Grozny began early on Saturday morning, twenty years to the day after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. Mindful of the mistakes they made in Afghanistan and the last Chechen war from 1994 to 1996, when they lost men with crude frontal assaults, the Russians were behaving with more caution this time.
Continuing their sector-by-sector "cleansing" of Grozny yesterday, federal ground troops were pushing into suburbs until they met resistance, then pulling back again to allow long-range guns to hit the areas where they had discovered rebels.
The Russians said that everything was "going to plan" and that they had managed to release a 17-year-old Israeli, Laura Lichtman, whom the Chechens had been holding hostage.
Ekho Moskvi radio said the Russians were holding the outskirts but the Chechens were fortifying the city centre. Fighting was especially fierce in the eastern suburb of Staropromyslovksy. There, near the Elektropribor electrical factory, the Chechens had succeeded in bringing down a Russian helicopter, according to their spokesman, Movladi Udugov.
Fighting was also raging south of the city, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Despite poor weather, the air force was bombing villages where it believed rebels were entrenched.Reuse content