Russians launch offensive to cut off Grozny

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The Independent Online

Serious ground-fighting has started for the first time in Chechnya as the Russian army seeks to encircle the capital, Grozny.

Serious ground-fighting has started for the first time in Chechnya as the Russian army seeks to encircle the capital, Grozny.

Mumadi Saidayev, the chief of operations in the Chechen armed forces, said yesterday that "the biggest battle since the start of the current war" had started for control of the Tersky hills eight miles north-west of Grozny airport. He said that up to 200 armoured vehicles were attacking Chechen positions in this area, under the cover of a heavy artillery and air bombardment, and had made some progress.

A reporter for the Russian news agency Interfax said bombs and shells were exploding every second, and window panes were vibrating even in the centre of Grozny.

The Russian strategy is apparently to cut off Grozny - set on a small plain - from the Caucasus mountains to the south. "Grozny is not an end in itself for the army," said General Gennady Troshev, commander of Russian forces to the east of Chechnya. "It is easier to bypass and encircle." He also promised to close Chechnya's southern border with Georgia.

Military analysts in Moscow, who put the Russian strength in Chechnya at 65,000, say the army has only one-third of the number of men needed to conquer the whole country. They will also become more spread out as they advance, making it easier for the Chechens to counter-attack. The mountainous border between Chechnya and Georgia, through which pass Chechen supply routes, would also be difficult to seal off.

The political future of Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, wholly depends on the outcome of the war. President Boris Yeltsin has been giving him public support,but has now gone on holiday to the Black Sea coast for a week.

Russia has meanwhile offered $1m for the head of the Chechen military leader Shamel Basayev, who led the invasion of Dagestan in August and enjoyed many successes against the Russians in the 1994-96 war. General Troshev said the reward would go to whoever killed him, "Chechens or our anti-guerrilla forces, the bandit needs to be liquidated".

The Russian government said Russian and foreign businessmen, backed by law enforcement agencies, had contributed the $1m. But, showing a shade of embarrassment at General Troshev's offer, it said the reward was for information leading to his capture rather than his death.

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