Russian military claims advances in Grozny

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The Independent Online

The Russian military claimed Saturday to have expanded positions around a key square serving as a gateway to the center of the Chechen capital Grozny, and to have pushed out some rebel snipers who had blocked the advance of Russian troops.

The Russian military claimed Saturday to have expanded positions around a key square serving as a gateway to the center of the Chechen capital Grozny, and to have pushed out some rebel snipers who had blocked the advance of Russian troops.

The Russians have been struggling to seize Grozny for a month, and have concentrated for the past week on Minutka Square. Taking the square would give federal forces leverage for pushing rebels out of the center of Grozny.

The federal military command said Saturday that its forces have expanded their positions in the Leninsky neighborhood of Grozny, north of Minutka, gaining more room for maneuvering troops ahead of an attack on the square.

Russian troops have also advanced toward Minutka from the Oktyabrsky district, in the south, and have blocked a road connecting the square to western neighborhoods of Grozny, said military spokesman Col. Alexander Veklich.

A top Russian commander, Col. Gen. Valery Manilov, said the Russians have seized several high-rise buildings in the Leninsky and Oktyabrsky districts, pushing out rebel snipers who had been firing relentlessly at federal troops trying to advance on Minutka Square, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

"Our troops have taken several tall buildings, which dominated the area," Manilov was quoted as saying. "There were sniper nests there, from which practically everything could be hit.

"The bandits were driven out of there, and federal troops have taken those commanding points, which now allows them to control movement in the area," he said.

Despite daily reports of advances from Russian commanders, federal forces have made little progress after more than a week of fighting for the square. Russian servicemen often taken buildings by day only to abandon them at night for fear of militant attacks. Many positions in the city have changed hands several times.

The Russian military command said its forces blocked three attempts by rebels to break through federal positions during the night, and that up to 50 militants were killed, the Interfax news agency reported. The Russian military frequently makes such claims, which cannot be independently confirmed.

A rebel fighter who escaped from Grozny on Saturday, along with six other rebels and 15 wounded people, said the Russians control only a few blocks in several districts of Grozny, despite their claims of progress.

Rebels were also positioned in the rear of Russian forces, ready to attack from behind, said the fighter who asked to be identified only by his first name, Bislan.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov on Friday told his field commanders to hold their positions in Grozny until Feb. 23, which marks the "anniversary of the deportation of Chechens to Siberia and Kazakstan" under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, the Interfax news agency reported.

Artillery and tank fire rained on Grozny from all sides, the military command said.

Warplanes and helicopter gunships also bombarded the mountainous Argun and Vedeno regions of southern Chechnya, but no major military movement was reported on the ground.

Veklich, the military spokesman, claimed that more than 90 rebels have been killed by Russian raids during the past day. The Russian military also said its aircraft flew more than 150 sorties on Friday, destroying more than 20 strongholds, four air defense installations, six mortar crews and a convoy of six trucks and four cars, the Interfax news agency reported.

The Chechen rebels have very few heavy weapons or bases despite Russian claims to have destroyed hundreds of such targets in recent months.

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