Russians run into counter-attack from Chechens

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ENTRENCHED REBELS kept advancing Russian forces out of the coveted centre of Chechnya's capital, Grozny, yesterday, while militants attacked federal troops blocking rebel supply routes in the southern mountains. Elsewhere in the breakaway republic, Russian troops failed to pierce guerrilla defences in eastern Chechnya and reported rebels were attacking the Russian-held north.

The Russians pushed on with their six-day-old offensive to seize Grozny, though commanders said they were moving cautiously because the roads were heavily mined. Russian artillery battered the city from all sides, and the military said Russian jets flew 12 combat missions over Grozny in 24 hours. The Russian military reported fierce fighting in the capital's eastern districts, where federal forces have been trying to establish control. But there was no sign in central Grozny of Russian forces or allied, pro-Moscow Chechen militia.

At least 15 oil wells were ablaze on the southern edge of the capital, sending black columns of smoke billowing into the air. "All Russian attempts to reach the city centre have failed," Mumadi Saidayev, chief of staff of the Chechen forces, said yesterday. "In some areas, we have managed to push the Russians back. We have left some quarters on the outskirts because they were difficult to defend."

The Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, said: "The military initiative rests entirely in the hands of the defenders of Grozny." He dismissed reports that the militants were preparing to abandon Grozny. Russian forces have seized the northern half of Chechnya and surrounded Grozny, the last big city still held by the rebels and the greatest political trophy. Commanders say they are focusing on the rugged southern mountains, where rebels are waging a guerrilla campaign from their well-hidden cave bases.

In southern Chechnya, rebels tried to break through the Russian blockade of a key road the militants had used to ferry supplies from neighbouring Georgia, said Colonel Sergei Bundarev, a Russian border guards commander. He said the rebels were stopped, and no troop casualties were reported. Russian forces were also fighting to take control of two mountain villages on Chechnya's eastern border with the Russian republic of Dagestan - Zandak- Ara and Zandak. Twelve rebels were killed and two of their military vehicles were destroyed on Wednesday, said a Russian Ministry of Defence spokesman. (AP)

t Russia says theUS President, Bill Clinton, wants to visit Moscow in the spring, but the White House said there was no such trip planned. It would be Mr Clinton's first visit since a worsening in ties over the Kosovo crisis and Chechnya.