MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia rained bombs and rockets on its rebel province of Chechnya on Tuesday to help troops hold positions around the capital Grozny where they met the stiffest resistance yet from Islamic rebels.
RIA news agency said the guerrillas were strengthening defenses in Grozny and laying mines and traps.
A human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, Alvaro Gil-Robles, set off for the North Caucasus to assess the humanitarian situation among more than 200,000 refugees who have fled the fighting for neighboring Ingushetia.
Moscow allowed the trip one day after holding up a request for a visit by the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Knut Vollebaek, who wanted to negotiate an end to the conflict with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.
The foreign ministers of France and Germany expressed shock at the violence and said Moscow's failure to allow outside observers was unacceptable.
Hubert Vedrine and Joschka Fischer said in a statement that Moscow must keep pledges made to the OSCE.
Moscow reluctantly promised an OSCE summit in Istanbul to allow the OSCE head to go to the region but it has refused to set any timeframe for a visit.
Moscow says it has to wipe out all the rebels whom it calls ''terrorists'' and blames for two incursions into neighboring Dagestan and the bombing of Russian cities, before any negotiations can begin. The rebels deny responsibility for the blasts.
Fighting Flares Up As Russians Meet Resistance
RIA news agency quoted officers from Russian army command in Chechnya as saying warplanes had carried out 47 raids on rebel sites in Chechnya and 123 helicopter gunship attacks.
The raids targeted most rebel-held regions but the heaviest bombardment was against positions in and around Grozny where fierce resistance had halted the Russian advance.
The rebels' web site said Russian troops had launched several attacks in the Urus-Martan district to gain control of a vital rebel supply route for Grozny.
Russian forces have been fighting to surround Grozny which they say is 80 percent encircled.
The rebels also reported heavy fighting near Argun, east of Grozny.
Interfax news agency quoted a Chechen rebel commander, Turpal Atgeriyev, as saying over the last 24 hours his forces had clashed with Russian troops all along the frontline.
Official Russian reports made no mention of any clashes.
RIA said the rebels were beefing up defenses in Grozny, mining buildings, bridges and roads. They were also burying 200-liter (44 gallon) fuel canisters which could be ignited to create walls of fire.
RIA also quoted military experts as saying Russian troops were preparing for urban combat -- a sign they may try to push the rebels out of Grozny.
Refugees Flee As Fighting Intensifies
The flare-up has forced new waves of refugees into Ingushetia.
Itar-Tass news agency said Gil-Robles flew to the region with Russia's envoy to Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, and acting Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika.
Russia has said it welcomed foreign aid for the refugees but it has resisted Western pressure to stop fighting and seek a negotiated solution.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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