Grozny is now '80 per cent surrounded'

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The Independent Online

Russian ground troops advanced on Grozny yesterday, almost completing a circle around the city and coming as close as three miles to the Chechen capital in some places.

Russian ground troops advanced on Grozny yesterday, almost completing a circle around the city and coming as close as three miles to the Chechen capital in some places.

In the city more than 5,000 Islamic rebels were reported to be waiting for a Russian assault which, if it comes, will pitch federal forces into the close-contact fighting they have so far avoided. Over the weekend, despite calls at last week's European security summit in Istanbul for a political settlement, the pounding continued. Attack aircraft and helicopter gunships defied bad weather to carry out scores of bombing missions. The Russians' targets included "rebel bases" near the towns of Bamut, west of Grozny, and Argun and Urus Martan to the east and south.

A Defence Ministry spokes-man in Moscow said Grozny was now "80 per cent surrounded". His estimate of the number of Islamic fighters in the besieged city was 5,000 to 6,000. A senior Interior Ministry official alleged rebels were using hostages to build fortifications.

Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, suggested it was only a matter of time before the troops tried to take Grozny. He said: "There will be no pauses. Our ultimate goal is to eliminate all terrorist bases and all conditions for their revival in the future over the entire territory of the Russian Federation, of which Chechnya is a part. We are talking about an anti-terrorist operation, not a war in Chechnya."

The West, horrified by civilian deaths of about 4,000 and the plight of 200,000 refugees, has a different view. The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists said yesterday that the world would be implicit in war crimes if it did not impose sanctions against Russia.

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