By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Rebel Islamic fighters said on Tuesday they retained their grip on the Chechen capital Grozny and the breakaway region's southern mountains, despite heavy attacks by the Russian military.
Itar-Tass news agency said Russian forces had tried to flush rebel fighters out of the area around the railway station near the center of Grozny on Monday and launched air and artillery attacks on the mountain strongholds.
But rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov said the rebels still had control of Grozny, except for the northern Staropromyslovsky district, and that the bombardment of the city had eased on Tuesday morning.
''It has been practically silent for about two hours. We have seen no planes and there has been only sporadic shooting,'' he said by telephone at around 0600 GMT. ''The city is firmly controlled by Chechen government forces.''
He reiterated that the rebels had regained control of three villages southwest of Grozny, although Moscow has not confirmed the report.
Valentin Astafyev, deputy head of the Russian forces' press center near Chechnya, said on Monday Russian troops were making steady progress in Grozny.
But Tass said the Russian forces had acknowledged facing tough resistance, after over three months into the campaign to wipe out separatists accused by Moscow of planting bombs which killed nearly 300 people in Russia.
The rebels deny the accusations.
''The largest groups of gunmen are in downtown Grozny. They continue to offer fierce resistance to federal troops, and plant mines and trip-wire mines at approaches to their positions in the center of the Chechen capital,'' Tass said.
An independent death toll was not available, and both sides tend to exaggerate the other's losses and minimize their own.
Udugov said up to 200 Russian soldiers had been killed in recent battles across Chechnya. Tass quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying only four Russian soldiers had died in the latest fighting and about 30 rebel fighters had been killed.
Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, has made winning the war a priority and wants a quick victory to reduce the risk of any military setbacks or major losses denting his chances of winning a presidential election expected in March.
He has vowed to do all he can to limit civilian losses after appeals from Western governments. A Chechen official said on Monday about 40,000 civilians were still trapped in Grozny, many of them elderly and sick.
Russian forces control much of Chechnya's lowland area. The rebels still control the North Caucasus region's southern mountains, from which they are hard to force out.
Sharip Yusupov, a representative of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, said Maskhadov was ready for peace talks but only if a cease-fire was announced and international mediators took part.
Moscow, anxious to push for a complete victory to regain pride after the humiliating losses suffered in an earlier war with the Chechen separatists from 1994 to 1996, has said the fighters should lay down their arms before peace talks start.
Putin, who became acting president in addition to his role as prime minister when President Boris Yeltsin resigned on Friday, discussed the situation in Russian-controlled parts of Chechnya on Monday with Moscow's envoy to the region.
The envoy, Nikolai Koshman, said Putin has told him to call a meeting on Wednesday to discuss plans for Chechnya in the first quarter of this year, but gave no other details.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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