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Russians Support Grozny Ground Attack by Stepping Up Air Assault

By Daniel Williams

The Russian military doubled the number of air attacks in and around the besieged Chechen capital Tuesday, but its ground units have not been able to break a fierce rebel defense of Grozny that has inflicted the highest casualty rate on Russian forces in the four-month-old war.

Taking advantage of clear skies, Su-24 and Su-25 ground attack jets, along with helicopter gunships flew 250 sorties Tuesday -- more than twice the number of each of the past three days. At the same time, Russian troops backed by intense artillery fire tried to press in on city center; their immediate goal appeared to be Minutka Square, the hub of several main streets.

But the troops seemed barely to have moved forward from areas they have held for days in the northwestern district of Staropromyslovsky and a smaller capital district in the east. Rebel spokesmen said their guerrilla detachments were striking at Russian forces behind the front lines, using snipers and ambushes to slow their advance.

Refugees from Grozny reaching Ingushetia, a Russian region west of Chechnya’s, described a see-saw battle in the capital, in which government forces move ahead yards at a time by day, only to retreat at night in the face of rebel ambushes. They say buildings in the city are being blasted again and again by Russian tank and artillery fire; some crumble under the onslaught, while others remain standing ruins.

Overall, the “final assault” on Grozny has diverged from the Russian script. An operation that was supposed to last three or four days has gone on for more than a week, and official Russian reports have become eerily repetitive. “Fierce fighting around Minutka Square” has become a daily chant of Defense Ministry spokesmen. Combat sites have been identified variously as Tukhachevsky and Kirov streets, sub-districts 1, 2 and 4, a university building, police headquarters, a central heating factory, a dairy, a cannery and a railway bridge.

The urban fighting has caused a surge in Russian casualties. The Interfax news agency said Monday that the Russian death toll in Chechnya had reached 926, a third more than official tallies. Of those, more than 500 are said to have died in December, when the first Russian attacks on Grozny were launched.