- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2000

GROZNY, Russia The Russian military redoubled its drive to conquer Chechen rebels yesterday, with troops fighting street by street in the capital Grozny while helicopter gunships and cannons relentlessly pounded the southern mountains.

Lt. Gen. Gennady Troshev, Russia's deputy chief commander in Chechnya, announced Wednesday that the war was expected to be over by Feb. 26, although "nobody is giving the forces any firm deadlines for ending the operation," the Interfax news agency reported. He did not explain how he arrived at that date.

Federal forces pushed toward the center of Grozny from several directions, trying to squeeze rebel fighters into an ever-tightening circle, the military said.

It was impossible to verify the army's claims of progress. Reporters are constrained from moving freely about the capital because of the danger and the restrictions imposed by both the Russian and Chechen sides.

But an Associated Press reporter watched yesterday as Russian forces in a northwestern neighborhood called Mikrorayon-3 seized several shell-punctured, five-story apartment buildings. They failed to take nearby nine-story buildings, from which Chechen snipers kept up a steady barrage of bullets.

Grozny has been a bastion of rebel resistance throughout the war, which has entered its fifth month, and its capture would give the Russian forces a boost after a series of surprise counterattacks by the rebels.

But control over Grozny could backfire, as it did during the 1994-96 bloodshed in Chechnya. During that war, Russians took the city and held it for more than a year, but lost it to the Chechens in a humiliating and bloody defeat.

After facing relatively little resistance in Chechnya's northern lowlands, Russian forces have been stalled at Grozny for months and only recently began pressing into rebel strongholds in the southern mountains.

Meanwhile, a pro-Moscow Chechen leader claimed yesterday to be mediating in talks between several Chechen warlords and federal authorities. Malik Saidullayev said the talks were proceeding "with difficulty," the Itar-Tass news agency reported. He refused to say which federal agencies were involved in the reputed negotiations or to name the Chechen commanders.

"[The federal authorities] need to carry out a political dialogue with these people, which is what I'm doing," Mr. Saidullayev told Echo of Moscow radio.

Government spokesman Andrei Korotkov confirmed that four Chechens had arrived in Moscow for talks on conditions for civilians in the breakaway republic, but said they did not constitute an official delegation.

"Negotiations are held continually," Mr. Korotkov. "As for these envoys, we don't know whom they represent."

Russian troops marched into Chechnya in late September after rebels staged armed incursions into the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan and reputedly organized the bombing of several apartment buildings, which killed about 300 people.

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