Rebels inflict heavy losses as Russian forces close on Grozny

RUSSIAN TROOPS in Chechnya have suffered serious casualties in some of the heaviest fighting of the war as they battle to control the strategic highway running south of Grozny, the Chechen capital.

After two battles in and around the village of Alkhan-Yurt, which is on the main road south-west of Grozny, villagers fleeing the fighting said they saw the bodies of hundreds of Russian soldiers. Earlier a senior Russian officer was quoted as saying 250 Russain soldiers had been killed.

Over three days from 1 December, Russian armoured reconnaissance units first tried to storm the bridge over a small river in Alkhan-Yurt. Eyewitnesses said the Russians then launched an infantry attack, which also failed.

Russian troops also flanked the village to the south, moving through a small forest where they again came under heavy fire from Chechen guerrillas. Omar Issayev, an elderly man who was driving through the forest, said: "I could see the bodies of at least 100 soldiers beside the road."

The fighting in Alkhan-Yurt was particularly ferocious. Zena Ataiva, who lives in the village, said: "Two Russian soldiers who were taking a video machine were captured and were decapitated by the fighters."

Alkhan-Yurt is known as a stronghold of the Wahhabis, a militant Islamic group, whofought side by side with regular Chechen guerrillas, led by a local commander called Ahmed Zakayev.

Russian television showed pictures of Alkhan Yurt, which appeared as a total ruin, with billowing clouds of smoke rising over shredded roofs.

The battles at Alkhan-Yurt are the first sign that Russian forces are abandoning their tactic of keeping their casualties low by avoiding close contact fighting and relying on their artillery and air power. Support for the war in Russia has remained high partly because losses have been much lower than in the first Chechen war in 1994-96.

The fighting in the forest to the east of Alkhan-Yurt may also explain why Russian Interior Ministry troops, possibly unnerved by guerrilla attacks, opened fire on a convoy of refugees in a bus and seven or eight cars in the area on Friday morning.

Rosa Aidemirova was shot in the head by the Russians. She said yesterday: "I was bandaged and given a painkiller by the same troops that shot at us from the forest. They had the badges of Omon (Interior Ministry troops) on their uniforms." Russia has denied massacring refugees.

Relatives of Mrs Aidemirova sitting by her hospital bed showed a Kalashnikov bullet taken from her leg and, lowering their voices so she would not hear, said another bullet was still in her head.

Chechen fighters were reported by refugees yesterday to have pulled out of Alkhan-Yurt. Russian troops have now largely encircled Grozny but Chechens say there are gaps in the Russian lines.

"Chechen commanders believe the fight for Grozny has begun," a pro-Chechen rebel was quoted as saying yesterday. Russia's chief commander in Chechnya, General Viktor Kazantsev, had proclaimed on Saturday that the town was under a full blockade.

Usam Baisev, a resident of Samashki, about 18 miles west of Grozny, said: "In my village the fighters were able to withdraw with their wounded long after the Russians had surrounded it."

The main guerrilla forces have withstood the recent attacks and were reported by the Russian army to be withdrawing into the mountains further south.

Russian forces faced relatively little opposition for the first two months of the campaign, but rebel resistance has intensified markedly - as have Russian artillery and air strikes - as the troops have advanced towards Grozny over the past week.

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