- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2000

MOSCOW Russian officials yesterday said their troops have reached the center of the Chechen capital of Grozny in what one called the "decisive phase" in a battle to control the besieged city.
After weeks of brutal fighting, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass predicted the city would fall to Russian troops in three or four days.
"The decisive phase of the liberation of Grozny has started," said Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Col. Konstantin Kukharenko.
The report could not be independently confirmed.
However, a spokesman for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov confirmed to Western reporters that the crucial Zhukovsky bridge linking east and west Grozny had fallen to the Russians.
Russia has boasted several times that it was close to capturing Grozny, only to be driven back by the rebels, who have launched counterattacks in recent weeks in and around the capital.
Claims of the imminent capture of the capital appeared to contradict a warning by acting President Vladimir Putin over the weekend that the war in Chechnya could be prolonged.
An earlier drive to seize the Chechen capital over the New Year fell apart when troops faced stiff resistance from separatist Muslim rebels entrenched in makeshift but effective bunkers.
Grozny has been subject in the last three days to a relentless aerial and artillery assault.
Penetration bombs, capable of destroying Chechen fortifications, have been used in the past 24 hours and it is possible that Chechen rebels may have been forced to abandon some of their defenses in the city center.
Western diplomatic sources in Moscow said that the widespread use of air-dropped penetration bombs, which are designed to destroy underground bunkers, would have raised the death toll among civilians.
Thousands of sick and elderly civilians are believed trapped in Grozny, sheltering in cellars and sewers.
Russian television footage last night showed about 20 fires raging in the capital. Smoke covered the skyline with the thickest plumes around an oil refinery that was bombed on the weekend.
Defense Ministry officials in Moscow said Special Forces commandos trained in urban warfare were leading the ground assault on Grozny.
They claimed more than 100 rebels had died in the latest phase of the offensive.
The Chechens say 250 Russians have been killed since Saturday.
Both sides typically underreport their own casualties and exaggerate those of their foes.
The latest upsurge in the fighting came amid a visit by an official delegation from the Council of Europe, the continent's most important human rights organization.
"We want a cease-fire, we want negotiations, we want the intolerable situation with refugees to be stopped," said Lord David Russell-Johnston of Britain, leader of the delegation, after meeting with Mr. Putin.
Mr. Putin said that Russia was engaged in a war against terrorists and bandits.
Russia sent troops into Chechnya in late September to crush militants who were blamed for armed incursions into the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan and for a series of apartment house bombings that killed about 300 people.

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