MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian troops stepped up artillery fire against the Chechen capital Grozny Monday in the face of increasing rebel resistance on the third day of a campaign to seize the besieged city.
Russian media reported the forces had encountered fierce resistance in certain areas of the city from rebels, who had regrouped and worked out where to hit the advancing troops.
Pro-Moscow paramilitaries, leading a methodical advance on key points, have pushed deep toward the center of the city, where up to 40,000 civilians are huddled in basements with little food and firewood.
Moscow's commanders, vowing to minimize casualties among troops and civilians, say they plan to take the city bit by bit, avoiding a rash, all-out attack like the one which cost the lives of thousands of soldiers in the previous war of 1994-96.
''During the night Russian forces did not stop artillery fire against Grozny. By daybreak, the intensity had sharply increased,'' a correspondent for Russia's Interfax news agency reported from the city.
The correspondent said Grad multiple-launch missiles were being fired at Grozny and tanks were on overlooking heights.
Chechen field commanders had ''regrouped their forces and found the weak areas where they could strike at the Russian forces,'' Interfax reported.
ORT television, reporting from Mozdok, Russia's main military base just outside Chechnya, said Russian troops were facing strong resistance in Grozny's industrial Staropromoslovsky district, which had been heavily reinforced.
Troops Edge Closer To City Center
Between 1,500 and 5,000 Chechen guerrillas are believed to be resisting the Russian onslaught in Grozny, outnumbered by Russian troops.
Interfax quoted pro-Moscow Chechen leader Bislan Gantamirov, who commands 800 paramilitaries, as saying Sunday his forces had reached the city center near the Dom Pechati building, once headquarters of local newspapers.
ORT television said the troops had reached Minutka square near the city center. Itar-Tass news agency said forces on the northern outskirts were using air support to cut off groups of rebels from their main defense positions in the city center.
After launching their campaign in September, Russian forces swiftly took control of the northern steppes and the fertile valley south of Grozny that forms the Chechen heartland.
But the last two areas under rebel control -- the capital and the mountains to the south -- could prove more costly.
Grozny's warrens of Soviet-era bunkers and concrete ruins are a haven for snipers and urban guerrillas, and the mountain gorges are littered with the rusted hulks of Russian tanks, monuments to the price Moscow paid to storm them in 1995.
''Russian troops continue to move into the center of the city, but officers say Grozny is not as important as the areas to the south,'' a correspondent for ORT television said from Mozdok.
Russia Ignores Western Criticism
Russia has shrugged off the wave of Western criticism of the massive use of force in Chechnya, saying the military actions were appropriate for the enemy it confronted. The campaign enjoys widespread support in Russia.
Sunday, a U.S. administration official reiterated a warning that the Chechnya campaign could lead to Russia's international isolation.
''We continue to urge restraint and the commencement of dialogue,'' the official said. ''Russia runs the risk of isolating itself from the international community by continuing to utilize indiscriminate force.''
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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