Russians move in on rebel capital

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The Independent Online
Russian troops attacked Grozny, capital of the breakaway Caucasus republic of Chechnya, last night. The semi-official Itar-Tass news agency reported from a military base in Mozdok, in the neighbouring republic of North Ossetia, that troops had eng aged Chechen forces around 11pm local time on the outskirts of the city and were nearing Grozny despite resistance.

And early today Russian planes dropped bombs near the city's main television tower.They appeared to fall closer to the city centre than during previous raids, blowing out windows 500m from the presidential palace. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Bridges north of Grozny were shelled yesterday and the outskirts were bombed.

An AFP journalist in Grozny reported a heavy bombardment of outlying areas and could see fires from the city centre. Chechen officials said an electricity substation and the television tower had been hit.

Mozdok deployed between 25,000 and 40,000 troops a week ago to crush the republic's three-year-old claim to independence. It was not clear whether all of the three columns of Russian forces poised on the approaches to Grozny were involved in the latest attack.

Russian forces were positioned near Tolstoy-Yurt, 20km north of Grozny; near Pervomaiskoye 15 km from Grozny city-centre; and near Dovidenko, 41km west of the capital.

Another force comprising lightly-armed Interior Ministry troops was based 25km north of Grozny near the village of Chervlennaya.

A further Russian force has been blocked for a week on the Chechnya-Dagestan border some 50 kilometres away.

The Russian government had said it would use force "humanely" and urged women, children and non-combatants to leave Grozny.

An estimated 67,000 to 100,000 refugees have fled to Ingushetia. The deadline for the Chechens to surrender passed at midnight on Saturday. The offensive came after President Boris Yeltsin rejected the latest offer by the Chechen President, Dzhokhar Dudayev, of negotiations. He sent a telegram to Mr Yeltsin yesterday offering to meet Russia's deputy prime minister, Nikolai Yegorov, but only in the Chechen capital and only if he was accorded full powers by President Yeltsin to make a deal. Mr Yeltsin responded by telling Mr Dudayev to go to Mozdok for talks with Russia's secret-services chief, Sergei Stepashin, and Mr Yegorov.

The atmosphere in Chechnya had been inflamed further after Russian armoured vehicles fired on a convoy of refugees' cars heading towards Ingushetia on Saturday night, killing at least nine people, including four women, near the village of Nesterovskaya.

Investigators said the soldiers, apparently drunk, continued to shoot as refugees, some wounded, tried to run away. The armored vehicles then crushed the cars.

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