MOSCOW (Reuters) - Fierce resistance by Chechen rebels holed up in the regional capital Grozny and bad weather have all but stalled a drive by Russian forces to capture the besieged city, reports from the region said on Thursday.
Itar-Tass news agency, reporting from Russia's main regional base in Mozdok, just outside Chechnya, said rebels familiar with the city's terrain and infrastructure were resisting Russian attempts to claw their way into the capital.
Acting President Vladimir Putin was due to meet Nikolai Koshman, his special envoy to the region on Russia's southern flank. Putin, heavy favorite to win early presidential elections in March, has overseen Russia's campaign to restore control over the region, now in its fourth month.
Tass said Russian troops concentrated on reinforcing their positions around the city and conducted house-to-house searches in districts under their control.
Private NTV television said Russian forces mounted attacks on rebel positions in the capital from the north and east.
Interfax news agency reported from Mozdok that troops had contained a group of rebels trying to break out of Grozny through the southwest, killing 40. It said the rebels had also lost more than 100 in a battle at Grozny's railway station.
Each side in the conflict tend to exaggerate the other's losses and, with correspondents kept out of most of Chechnya, it is virtually impossible to confirm reports independently.
Interfax said fog had grounded most combat aircraft in the area, leaving troops on the ground with little air support, Russia's main trump card against the rebels, who have no aircraft of their own.
The air force flew only 41 sorties over the last 24 hours, about a half their normal daily schedule, it said.
The rebel kavkaz.org site said a Russian armored column had left Grozny for Alkhan-Yurt to the west, which it said had been recaptured by rebel fighters two days ago. It said up to 40 Russian servicemen had been killed in the village.
Both sides reported skirmishes in the mountains south of Grozny, where troops had been trying to gain control over positions overlooking roads leading to rebel bases.
The rebels said they had mounted two counter-attacks in the area, killing up to 50 Russian servicemen and destroying a tank.
Grozny and the mountains remain the two rebel strongholds after Russian forces have captured much of the rest of lowland Chechnya where about 90 percent of Chechens live.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet