By Maria Eismont
GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - Russian troops clashed with rebel fighters near the center of Chechnya's capital Grozny but the Russian Defense Ministry denied on Thursday its forces had advanced into the city or tried to storm it.
This Reuters correspondent saw more than 100 Russian soldiers lying dead after their column of tanks and armored personnel carriers was surrounded and attacked by Chechen separatist guerrillas late on Wednesday.
The armored column had advanced deep into Grozny from the direction of Khankala on the eastern edge and almost reached the central Minutka district before turning back. Russian troops had occupied Khankala, site of a military airport, over the weekend.
But in Moscow, a Defense Ministry spokesman said by telephone: ''The military categorically denies the information put out by Reuters.''
Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev told Interfax news agency: ''There was and will be no storming of Grozny. This information is a provocation. We must determine who spread it.''
The unofficial Russian military news agency AVN quoted a source at Russian headquarters near Chechnya on Thursday as saying 50 soldiers had died overnight in clashes in central Grozny.
But AVN, the first Russian source to report the clash without citing foreign agencies, said later that officials had denied it.
Another military spokesman said Russian units had merely continued to improve their positions in Khankala and in the Gikalo district on the northwestern edge of the city.
Russian tanks had not attacked Grozny since the disastrous 1994-96 Chechen war. A correspondent for the BBC suggested the armored column may have lost its way in the dark.
So Far A Popular War
Major clashes could stir up grim memories among Russia's voters ahead of Sunday's parliamentary election.
This war, unlike the last one, has so far been popular among the Russian public and has boosted the ratings of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the new Unity bloc he backs in Sunday's vote.
Russian news agencies and radio and television channels carried foreign news agency reports of the clashes and also the denials in morning news bulletins.
The main clashes on Wednesday night were in the Mityurina district. The rebels attacked the column with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
The fighting lasted about three hours and ended around 11 p.m. Russia pounded the area where the fighting took place with Grad multiple-launched rockets.
Russian artillery and warplanes have been bombarding Grozny for nearly three months and troops completed their encirclement of the city nearly two weeks ago.
Many civilians remain in the city, hiding in freezing cellars, too scared to venture out. Their food supplies are dwindling and some have been killing pigeons to stay alive.
Maskhadov Seeks Mediation
Russia rescinded an ultimatum issued last week that had given all residents until December 11 to leave the city or be treated as military targets.
But only about 2,500 have managed to take advantage of corridors Moscow set up for their escape. Estimates of those remaining range from 8,000 to 30,000.
Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has appealed for internationally mediated peace talks to halt the fighting and the head of a top European security body was due on Thursday to visit Russian-occupied areas of the province.
Knut Vollebaek, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told reporters before heading for Chechnya he thought it unlikely he would be allowed to mediate.
''I don't think that is realistic. The Russians haven't said no but they haven't said yes either. So I don't think that will happen,'' he told reporters.
On his arrival in the Russian-held northern Chechen village of Znamenskoye, he reiterated a call for a cease-fire near Grozny to allow civilians to flee.
Maskhadov said he was ready to pay almost any price to stop the war, which has now raged for nearly three months, but made clear talks with Moscow could not work without foreign help.
''There absolutely must be a third party in any future negotiations which could give guarantees that any accord will be implemented,'' Maskhadov told Reuters Television in an interview shown on Wednesday.
Interfax quoted military sources as saying Russian war planes had flown 43 sorties, striking rebel targets in mountains to the south during the last 24 hours.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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