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Russian Soldiers Approach Central Districts in Grozny

By Daniel Williams
THE WASHINGTON POST -- NAZRAN, Russia

Russian armor and infantry broke into central districts of Grozny Tuesday, battling separatist guerrillas in a three-pronged advance on the bitterly contested regional capital, according to Russian and Chechen reports.

The Russians were trying to blast snipers and antitank gunners out of their positions, rather than rely solely on airstrikes and long-distance artillery to clear a path. Russian forces were advancing from the northwest, east and southeast with the immediate goals appearing to be Minutka Square, a major intersection in south-central Grozny, and a bridge of the Sunzha River that bisects the Chechen capital.

Russian officials have been predicting a “final” assault on Grozny for several days, to drive rebels from the city and claim the only major Chechen urban center still outside their control. Aided by clear weather, jets and helicopters flew 150 combat missions over the course of 24 hours, hitting both Grozny and mountain routes to the south.

The seizure of Grozny would come at an opportune time for the government of Acting President Vladimir Putin. A string of battlefield setbacks had begun to prompt criticism of him in Moscow and threatened to become a political issue in advance of elections on March 26 to choose the successor to Boris Yeltsin, who retired Dec. 31. News commentators have begun to question official casualty counts, and military analysts have warned of a prolonged war of attrition.

Since their first probes of the capital in mid-December, the Russians had been stalled at the outskirts and had gained control of only one district, Staropromyslovsky in the northwest. Elsewhere, Russian tanks and artillery dueled inconclusively with rebel snipers and their mobile mortar batteries. The Russians, beset by fog and fear of casualties, were reluctant to penetrate the city’s many warrens of mid-rise buildings, which can serve as ideal settings for ambushes.

The Russians also have placed new emphasis on securing areas outside Grozny in hopes of preempting hit-and-run attacks by guerrillas on stationary positions. Refugees reaching Ingushetia, the region to the south, spoke of intensified searches of basements, expulsions of women and children, and Chechen men being rounded up in Grozny suburbs.

Taking Grozny involves long-term risks for Moscow. In the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, the capture of the city began a long period of guerrilla harassment of Russian outposts throughout the capital. The Chechens also took hostages elsewhere in Russia and weakened Russian resolve to pursue the war. Eventually, a rebel counterattack drove the Russians from the capital and the Chechens won de facto -- albeit chaotic -- independence.

Russian officials said combat raged throughout Grozny Tuesday. “The decisive phase of the liberation of Grozny has started,” said Konstantin Kukharenko, a Defense Ministry spokesman. Internal Affairs Minister Vladimir Rushaylo predicted the offensive will succeed “in the next few days.”

Much will depend on the strength of the rebels’ resistance, an issue on which officials of President Aslan Maskhadov’s government has issued mixed signals.

“The period of battles for strategic positions is coming to an end.”