Russians make all-out assault to take Grozny

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The Independent Online

Russian tanks and infantry were fighting their way towards the centre of Grozny last night in an all-out effort to capturethe city.

Russian tanks and infantry were fighting their way towards the centre of Grozny last night in an all-out effort to capturethe city.

Chechen guerrillas, dug into ruined buildings around a bridge over the Sunzha river, in the heart of the city, were trying to hold back armour with machine-guns and grenade launchers. A rebel commander described the bridge as "the most strategically important" site in the capital.

A spokesman for President Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, said the bridge had been captured and that Grozny was being stormed from all sides. Russian commanders gave their men two days to capture Grozny, said sources at headquarters, but that time-table may slip. The city's burnt-out apartment blocks, mostly destroyed in the first Chechen war, are ideal for street fighting, at which the guerrillas excel.

Both sides admitted heavy casualties. A sign that the Russians were not having everything their own way came with reports that the Chechens were using drainage tunnels to make attacks in districts already captured by Russian troops.

At the weekend Vladimir Putin, the acting Russian president, said the army would take Grozny and then advance into the mountains of southern Chechnya. A Defence Ministry spokesman said "the decisive phase of the liberation of Grozny has started".

The Chechen deputy chief of staff, Islanbek Ismailov, confirmed that fighting had intensified. The Chechens have an estimated 2,000 fighters in Grozny, which was first encircled by the Russians on 2 December. The capture of the Chechen capital will be an important symbolic victory for the Russian army, though it is almost entirely in ruins.

Grozny was the scene of their worst defeats in the last Chechen war, in 1994-96, which Russian generals are keen to avenge. But its fall will not mean the end of the war, since Chechen military leaders say they are shifting to all-out guerrilla warfare.

Street fighting may also go on for some time. A Russian military spokesman said the siege could have been brought to an end sooner but "this would be linked to large losses among our troops and among civilians". Moscow is keen to keep its casualties down to ensure the war continues to be popular in Russia. There arebelieved to be 30,000 civilians still in Grozny, many too old or sick to escape, who have been living in cellars for months to escape the relentless artillery and air bombardment.

In past battles in Grozny, Chechen tactics have been to let Russian armour and infantry get so close to their positions that artillery cannot be used without endangering their own men. Russian news agencies said several guerrilla units, of 50 to 60 men, had succeeded in breaking out of the city.