MOSCOW (Reuters) - Chechen rebels said Thursday they had suffered by far their worst casualties of the four-month Russian military campaign amid furious street-by-street fighting in the capital Grozny.
Russia's army said its warplanes and helicopters flew more than 200 raids -- possibly the most yet -- as its unrelenting bombardment of the city continued, and Moscow reported slow but steady tactical gains on the ground.
Russian troops, bogged down since they surrounded Grozny last month, have launched an all-out onslaught to take the ruined capital. Both sides have described the fighting as the fiercest yet, raging on the city's streets since Monday.
The rebels dismissed reports that unnamed guerrilla commanders were in Moscow for talks, saying all their leaders were fighting in the field and they had no plans to meet the pro-Moscow Chechen businessman who touted the initiative.
Russian NTV television said troops had taken ''several key objects'' in Grozny, including a tactically important bridge over the Sunzha river that bisects the city.
Itar-Tass news agency quoted pro-Moscow Chechen militia chief Bislan Gantamirov as saying Russian forces had taken control of the central Minutka Square. There was no immediate confirmation of the report.
The head of a visiting delegation from the Council of Europe, a human rights body, said he would not recommend that Russia be suspended from the organization over its conduct of the war, but said Moscow should pursue a cease-fire.
Between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians remain trapped in Grozny, sheltering in cellars with little food.
The Chechen rebel Internet Web site Kavkaz.org said 45 guerrillas had been killed and 60 wounded in the past four days of fighting. Previously rebels had rarely acknowledged more than a handful of casualties in a single day.
Kavkaz.org also said 1,500 Russians had died in the four-day onslaught, but both sides routinely exaggerate enemy casualties.
Russia said Thursday only four soldiers had died in the past day. But NTV, reporting from Russian headquarters, suggested the figure was incomplete, describing it as ''only the official number. Unfortunately we have no other information.''
Kavkaz.org also said rebels had captured a Russian Interior Ministry Forces general, giving his name as Malofeyev. The ministry press office was not available for comment.
Russian commanders say their assault on Grozny differs from a botched attempt in 1994 because they are relying less on armored vehicles, easy targets in the city's streets.
But that meant ground troops must fight for every block against rebels who had had months to fortify their positions.
''(The rebels) are extremely well prepared,'' a Russian officer told NTV in Grozny. ''In our advance we have already had to cross three lines of defense. As we get closer to the center the defenses get stronger and stronger.''
Storm Follows Setbacks
This week's assault on the Chechen capital followed military setbacks that had raised fears Russia had fallen into the same strategic trap that brought defeat in the 1994-96 Chechen war.
In the first three months of their campaign Russian forces seized most of Chechnya's low-lying heartland. But they have met stiffer resistance in Grozny and the mountains to the south.
Russian generals initially said they could take Grozny without a ground assault, but a tactic of encircling the city and bombing it failed to dislodge rebel fighters last month.
This month rebels struck towns under Russian control in lightning raids, a tactic that proved devastating in 1995-96.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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