Snipers and howitzers pound Grozny suburbs

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WILD FIREFIGHTS erupted in the mist-shrouded battle lines between Russian and Chechen positions in the devastated eastern suburbs of Grozny last night, as Russian tanks and armoured vehicles tested for weaknesses in rebel defences in one of the heaviest attacks yet on the besieged capital.

Heavy Russian howitzers poured fire from hilltop positions and Chechen snipers and mortars opened fire on Russian troops as thunderous explosions of bombs and artillery rounds rang out across the devastated city. Standing in a muddy base in the ruins of the city, Colonel Vladimir Mukhlin told The Independent that the besieged Chechen rebels "have two corridors to leave the city. If they don't leave, they'll be destroyed."

Then shots rang out and he ordered his men to take cover "quickly, quickly". Snipers were operating from trenches that had been abandoned by Chechen fighters, Col Mukhlin warned, and we could hear the roar of artillery and small weapons fire on the front close by. But he stressed: "No one is going to attack Grozny. We aim to take buildings and save the civil population."

Our journey took us to within a mile of the front line and along roads where every building had been smashed by Russian artillery fire, the collapsed floors looking like concrete sandwiches.

At one point, the military band and choir of the 20th Russian infantry division stepped out of the mist in their camp, to sing of past triumphs from Stalingrad to Berlin and how they had never faced defeat. The 20th took part in the capture of Berlin in 1945, and seized the presidential palace in Grozny in the last Chechen war four years ago. It is one of the toughest fighting units in the Russian armed forces.

All day yesterday the Russian air bombardments of the city were impeded by the thick fog that lay on the ground. Unseasonably warm weather has turned the roads into rivers of liquid mud, adding to the misery. A Russian officer said: "The mud in Chechnya seems worse than elsewhere, but soldiers probably say that in every war."

The road we took from Tolstoy-Yurt into the city had been torn up by the Russian tanks in the two months since I last drove that way. All the buildings along it were completely burned out. A huge column of smoke swirled above Tolstoy-Yurt, from the town's oil refinery.

The fields were empty apart from an occasional Chechen herding cattle, or selling cigarettes or water on the roadside. There was no traffic on the road to Grozny apart from columns of military vehicles. The whole road is like a military camp, but there are no signs of the tight military formations that would be the prelude to an imminent storming of Grozny.

The roads around the besieged city are crowded with troops and military vehicles with few civilians to be seen. As we watched Russian tanks rolled past wood and brick Chechen villages, there was a sense of Russia's overwhelming military might in this small republic.