Russians close in on Grozny's seat of power

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The fog of war masked the centre of Grozny yesterday as Russian forces closed in on the presidential palace, the point from which Dzokhar Dudayev has rallied his fellow Chechens to a pitch of resistance Moscow never anticipated.

The Russians are advancing from three sides and the only access to the presidential palace is from the south, over two bridges raked with fire. But the palace itself appears to have remained in Chechen hands. The Russians entered another building, that of the Chechen Council of Ministers - probably the cause of reports that the palace had fallen - but were driven out.

Russian and Chechen troops are intermingled throughout the city and its suburbs. The strongest Russian position is the railway station and depot, which is surrounded by a strong concrete wall.

But the Russians are killing and maiming their own as well as Chechens. Their artillery bombardment had been focused on the Minutka traffic roundabout, a mile south of the palace, used by Chechen fighters as an assembly point. Yesterday the barrage creptfurther south, and I saw the bodies of several Russian residents of the city lying in the road. Three more bodies were lying in the ruins of a building.

Despite the pounding, the Chechen defenders were optimistic. The Russians said the two-day "ceasefire" last week had enabled the Chechens to reinforce and rebuild their positions. The Chechen commander, Salahudin Biloyev, a former major in the KGB, said it had enabled the Russians to do the same.

But yesterday it was reported that Mr Dudayev's eldest son, Ovlur, died of wounds received last week in the fighting in Grozny. His death was said to have taken place in Nazran, 40 miles to the west in neighbouring Ingushetia. The news came from the headof Chechnya's Council of Elders and is unconfirmed.

Nazran's hospital deals with casualties from Russian attacks which have missed Grozny and its surrounding villages.

Batyr Aushev, the doctor who heads the hospital's trauma department, said he had dealt with 30 wounded from the fighting since the conflict began. In one ward a middle-aged woman, a teenage girl, and two children had all suffered terrible injuries - two Russian, two Ingush, said the doctor.

Sultanova Khadisha, 16, from the village of Arshtay in Ingushetia, had had her left leg blown off below the knee in an attack by Russian helicopter gunships which killed five people from one family.

Down the road, 800 refugees from Grozny were living in three railway trains. In one, two nurses were running a makeshift medical centre equipped only with a handful of household medicines.