GROZNY, Russia Grim evidence of Russia’s bloodied foray into the Chechen capital lay all around Thursday despite Moscow’s denials that any attack had taken place.
There were the bodies of at least 115 federal troops, many mangled and burned, strewn in a Grozny square. Near the bodies were shattered tanks and charred personnel carriers.
An Associated Press reporter in the war-shattered city counted the dead from Wednesday’s assault, which was met by fierce rebel resistance that handed the Russian military what appeared to be its worst defeat since it entered the breakaway republic in September to restore control.
The reporter counted seven wrecked Russian tanks and eight armored personnel carriers.
It was the first time Russian ground forces drove so deep into the capital, and the bloody result was a reminder of the 1994-96 Chechen conflict, when rebels desperately defended Grozny and inflicted a heavy toll on the superior Russian forces.
It was not clear if the Russian armored group was the spearhead of what was to have been a major attack on Grozny or a reconnaissance mission to test the rebels’ defenses. The Russians may also have penetrated farther into the city than they intended.
Russian officials Thursday denied any attack had taken place.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called reports of the assault and heavy casualties “complete nonsense,” and Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev also denied a clash occurred.
“Reports about the defeat of a Russian armored column by the rebels in Grozny’s Minutka Square are lies and misinformation,” the Interfax news agency quoted Mr. Sergeyev as saying. “No Russian armored vehicles have entered the city.”
Mr. Sergeyev said government forces had not suffered any casualties. The Russian military said only two government soldiers had been killed in fighting during the past 24 hours.
Using Cold War-style language, the military claimed the reports of the battle were a provocation by Western news agencies, which they said were working on behalf of the Chechen forces.
Hundreds of Chechen fighters firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns surrounded the armored column Wednesday evening on the vast square, two miles from the city center.
The tanks, caught out in the open, were hit by rebel fire from all directions. Infantry in the lightly armored personnel carriers were mowed down as their vehicles burst into flames.
Rebel casualties appeared to have been light.
A rebel commander, Tsupyan Magomadov, told the Associated Press he could not confirm casualty figures from the Minutka Square fighting. The Russian news agency Interfax cited unspecified sources as saying 25 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded in the ambush.
According to Mr. Magomadov, Russian artillery rained down on the city and its outskirts Thursday, with fighting focusing on a hill that is the highest spot in Grozny.
Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships flew every few minutes toward Grozny from a major airfield just outside Chechnya. A helicopter pilot, Capt. Oleg Ovinov, said the aircraft struck rebel positions in a wooded area on Grozny’s edge but did not attack the city proper.
Russian generals have insisted for weeks that they will not mount a major ground attack on Grozny because they want to avoid the kind of heavy losses the army suffered in the city during the last war. While the army has a huge advantage in artillery and tanks, the Russian infantry is made up mostly of poorly trained conscripts facing experienced Chechen guerrillas, who excel at street fighting.
The Russian army maintained Thursday that it would take the city within days. But the military has made similar predictions repeatedly in recent weeks.
Chechen rebel leaders in Grozny said they were determined to hold out in the bomb-ravaged city. Several thousand militants are entrenched in the capital, where they have been preparing for a Russian assault.
The fighters “are afraid of nothing but Allah,” said Grozny Mayor Lechi Dudayev.
The Russian military’s march across Chechnya had faced limited resistance from the outgunned militants, who have repeatedly retreated rather than wage full-scale ground battles.
Russia has come under a barrage of foreign criticism for its campaign in Chechnya, which has resulted in many civilian casualties and the destruction of Grozny and other cities.
Anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 hungry civilians are believed trapped in Grozny, many too old and infirm to make the dangerous journey out of the capital.
Russia said Thursday that 700 civilians left the city on Wednesday evening via safe corridors established by the Russian military.