Russia claims part of Grozny as Chechen reinforcements arrive

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THE RUSSIAN military claimed yesterday to be advancing into the devastated Chechen capital Grozny, but it still faced stiff resistance from rebel forces holed up in fortified defences.

Propaganda flew back and forth as thick and fast as bullets on the battlefield and it was hard to judge the merits of the claims and counter-claims.

In Grozny, where federal forces launched a ground operation on 25 December, pro-Moscow Chechens claimed to be within two kilometres of the city centre and the barricades of the separatists.

Beslan Gantimirev, a pardoned convict leading the vanguard, said his men now controlled the suburb of Staropromyslovsky, scene of fierce fighting over recent days, and would take the centre by New Year. "I am sure of that because the days of the militants are numbered and there will be no mercy for them," Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

But Isa Munayev, one of the rebel leaders, mocked Mr Gantimirev's confidence. Fighters based in the mountains had managed to sneak through the supposedly watertight Russian blockade of Grozny and enter the city to reinforce those defending it, he said. "The true battle still lies ahead."

In Moscow, General Valery Manilov, the first deputy head of the General Staff, took a cautious line. No deadlines were being set because the most important consideration was keeping casualties to a minimum. New Year would see the "backbone" of rebel resistance broken but it could take another two or three months to destroy smaller groups of militants, he conceded.

Ekho Moskvi radio said conditions in Grozny were very difficult for the Russians. "The whole city is a minefield," it said, adding that the rebels had dug trenches and filled them with burning oil.

There were also reports that the Russians had destroyed the command bunker of the Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, in bombing raids over the Caucasus Mountains. Mr Maskhadov is the elected President of Chechnya but Moscow has written him off because, it says, he has failed to distance himself from Islamic fundamentalists.

General Manilov himself denied the reports about the bunker of President Maskhadov, whose whereabouts are unknown.

In a glittering ceremony in the Kremlin, President Boris Yeltsin awarded "Hero of Russia" gold stars to three generals, including General Vladimir Shamanov, some of whose soldiers were implicated in recent brutal killings of civilians in the town of Alkhan-Yurt. Apparently referring to Russia's last disastrous war in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, President Yeltsin said that in the past, "little errors had led to serious mistakes. But now the army's conduct is impeccable".

There were, however, some signs that Russian national unity was beginning to crack. The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda commented that it was worrying when generals set the political agenda for a country.