Russia launches intense attacks on capital amid Chechen pleas for talks

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Russian troops backed by tanks and artillery moved to occupy Chechnya's second-largest city on Friday, tightening their hold on the breakaway region.

Russian troops backed by tanks and artillery moved to occupy Chechnya's second-largest city on Friday, tightening their hold on the breakaway region.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the Russian flag was flying Friday over Gudermes after infantry units started to move in. Tanks and artillery were posted on heights overlooking the city in eastern Chechnya to ensure there was no resistance, Russian commanders in Chechnya said.

Chechen officials did not say if their forces were resisting the Russian advance at Gudermes, but admitted some of their fighters in the area have been pulling back. The loss of Gudermes would represent a major setback for the Chechen government, which has been fighting to hold the city for several weeks.

Russian forces continued to bomb and rocket towns across Chechnya on Friday, with the capital Grozny suffering heavy air and artillery strikes.

Russia's defense minister, meanwhile, blasted the United States in one of the harshest anti-American statements since the Soviet collapse, accusing Washington of plotting to weaken Russia.

"U.S. national interests require that the military conflict in the North Caucasus, fanned from the outside, keeps constantly smoldering," Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said in a speech to top military officials.

The strategy could allow the United States to "weaken Russia and take full control over the North Caucasus," Sergeyev said.

The United States and other Western governments have urged Russia to end its offensive in Chechnya and seek a peaceful solution.

With Russian forces making gains in Chechnya, a senior Russian commander said the military could wrap up operations this year if the main Chechen forces are destroyed. But the Chechens say they will not stop fighting and are preparing for a guerrilla campaign.

"If everything goes according to the plans made, the liquidation of the main components of (Chechen) militant formations may be finished by the end of the year," Gen. Valery Manilov, deputy chief of the general staff, said on Russia's NTV network on Friday.

Russian jets and helicopters made more than 50 sorties during the past 24 hours, the air force said Friday. The air raids destroyed four military bases, a fuel depot, a weapons depot and a communications center.

Manilov said there was no need to storm Grozny and that it could be captured by other means. He suggested residents may help the Russians take the city because they are tired of the fighting.

The Red Cross announced Friday that it had pulled all its staff out of Chechnya last weekend, saying the situation had grown too dangerous. The United Nations, meanwhile, delivered seven truckloads of food to Chechens who have taken refuge in the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has appealed to Moscow for talks to end the fighting, but the Russian government rejected the call.

Senior Russian officials have said the fighting can end if the Chechens surrender - a condition the Chechens are not likely to accept.

The Russian government also has said it will continue the fighting for as long as necessary.

The military campaign will be "brought to a logical end and the command to retreat won't be given," Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo was quoted as saying Friday by the Interfax news agency.

Russia says its Chechnya campaign, which began with airstrikes in early September, is aimed at liquidating Islamic rebels. But Russia increasingly appears determined to regain full control of the republic.

Russia began the attacks after Chechnya-based militants twice invaded neighboring Dagestan this summer. The militants are also blamed for a series of apartment bombings that killed some 300 people in September.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Moscow does not want Chechnya discussed next week in Turkey at the summit of the Organization for Secthe Chechen situation, Ivanov said in an interview Friday with the Vek newspaper that "local matters" should be avoided at the summit.

Meanwhile, a leader elected by Chechens loyal to the Russian government resigned his post in Moscow on Friday. Malik Saidullayev, the chairman of Chechen State Council, said he was quitting because the Defense Ministry had ignored his "repeated requests to stop the bombing," Interfax reported.

He handed his powers to Bislan Gantamirov, the former mayor of Grozny, who was recently released from prison in Russia and has announced his intention to return to Chechnya to restore order.