By Peter Graff
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian forces were battling their way into the Chechen capital Grozny and mountain gorges in the south of the breakaway region Tuesday in what could be a decisive phase in their three-month campaign.
Russia said Monday it had seized the main civilian airport in the north of the capital. It had already secured control over Grozny's Khankala military air base last week.
Both sides reported heavy fighting Tuesday in Serzhen-Yurt, mouth of the Vedeno Gorge, one of two main access routes into the rocky Caucasus Mountains to the south, Europe's highest range, where Chechen fighters have set up rear bases.
Monday, Moscow said it had sent marines over the Chechen border into the mountains from Dagestan, the Russian province to the east, opening a new front.
Russia has also dropped paratroops on mountaintops on Chechnya's southern border with ex-Soviet Georgia in an effort to encircle Chechen militants and trap them in gorges.
Russia's army denied the latest report accusing its troops of killing civilians. The British Broadcasting Corporation broadcast vivid testimony Monday and Tuesday of residents of the village of Alkhan-Yurt west of Grozny, who said rampaging Russian troops had killed 41 people there.
The BBC said it had seen no physical evidence of the killings. Russia's Defense Ministry called the accounts lies.
Interfax news agency said Russian Su-25 fighters, Su-24 bombers and Mi-24 helicopter gunships had flown 43 sorties over Chechnya in the past 24 hours, mainly striking guerrilla positions in the mountains.
Campaign Successful So Far, But Next Phase Tougher
Russia's Chechen campaign has been remarkably successful since it was launched in September in response to rebel attacks on Dagestan and a series of bomb blasts in Russian cities which Moscow blamed on the guerrillas.
Advancing Russian troops have seized virtually all the lowland steppes in the north and the fertile central valley that forms the Chechen heartland. Losses have been relatively light.
The 100,000-strong Russian force is more than three times larger than the one beaten by Chechen guerrillas in the 1994-96 Chechen war. Infantry troops advanced relatively slowly, relying on air support and firepower to limit casualties.
But the remaining objectives are likely to be far more challenging for Russian troops than were the lowland targets.
Grozny, with its maze-like streets, concrete ruins and Soviet-built nuclear bunkers, is a haven for urban guerrillas. And the steep and narrow gorges leading into the mountains are littered with the rusted shells of Russian armoured vehicles, monuments to the price Moscow paid for storming them in 1995.
Russian generals have acknowledged that the next phase of the operation will be more ''complicated.'' But they still say they will be able to seize Grozny within days, without a costly frontal assault by ground troops.
Reuters reporter Maria Eismont, one of a small number of journalists for foreign news organizations in Grozny at the weekend, says thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of mainly elderly and helpless civilians remain trapped in the capital, huddling in dark cellars with little food or firewood.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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