MOSCOW, Dec 30 (Reuters) - Russian forces launched fresh attacks on the Chechen capital Grozny and rebel bases in the south of the region on Thursday as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin again stressed the need for the offensive.
Chechen leaders shouted their defiance at Moscow. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said Russia would never be able to conquer his North Caucasus region while top rebel leader Salman Raduyev said the assault would cost Russia dear.
Itar-Tass news agency reported from Mozdok, Russia's main regional army base just outside Chechnya, that warplanes had carried out a series of dawn raids against rebel positions in Grozny and in the southern mountains.
Tass said the troops, who in some places had advanced to within two km (1.25 miles) of the centre of Grozny after days of fierce fighting, went into battle again after a relative lull on Wednesday evening which they had used to cement earlier gains.
Russian troops also pushed deeper into the southern mountains where the rebels have their bases.
RUSSIA HAD TO RESPOND TO CHALLENGE IN CHECHNYA - PUTIN
Putin, whose leadership of the offensive has made him Russia's most popular politician, said it was a shame that Western nations had criticised Russia for the war.
"Unfortunately, the bandits threw us a brazen and impudent challenge. They invaded Dagestan. We were duty-bound to restore order in the North Caucasus," Putin was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying in a speech at a reception in the Kremlin delivered on behalf of President Boris Yeltsin.
"Not everyone in Western nations understood this. We shall not allow the national pride of Russians to be trod upon," he added. Western criticism has focused on civilian casualties and the plight of refugees.
Russia has vowed to destroy the rebels and restore control over Chechnya, lost after a 1994-96 war against separatists.
CHECHENS SHOUT DEFIANCE
But Maskhadov told Interfax news agency the real war would only start when the Russians moved further into the mountains where they would be at a disadvantage in unfamiliar terrain.
"Even if the war goes on for 10 years, Russia will not be able to conquer Chechnya and its people. That is why I remind the Kremlin that its action will lead it nowhere," he said.
Moscow has dismissed Maskhadov as a weakling who does not control the powerful Islamic warlords whose activities triggered Russia's initial decision to bring Chechnya to heel.
Maskhadov said the Chechens remained in control in Grozny. He did not rule out that the Russians, who outgun and outnumber the rebels, might take the city but it would cost Moscow dear.
His words were taken up by rebel leader Raduyev, who led bloody raids during the 1994-96 war.
"Just in the last few days the Russian aggressors have faced several strong counter-attacks. Russian troops have suffered heavy losses," he told Reuters Television from an undisclosed location in Chechnya. "We hope that soon there will be a military and political reverse in this war."
Some 10,000 to 40,000 civilians remain in Grozny cellars, with little food or heat. "Many thousands" had died, he said.
Russia does not deny civilians are dying in Grozny but says it is doing its best to spare innocent lives.
More than 200,000 people have fled the fighting to neighbouring Ingushetia since the conflict began in September.
A spokeswoman for the Moscow branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Western nations had gathered $7.9 million to provide aid to the refugees.
WESTERN JOURNALISTS CRITICISED
Russia criticised seven Western journalists which it briefly detained for being in Chechnya with no proper accreditation. The men were released after several hours of questioning at Mozdok.
The journalists were correspondent Ricardo Ortega and camera operator Tirmuraz Gabashvili of Spain's Antena 3, the Washington Post's Daniel Williams, Rodrigo Fernandez of Spain's El Pais, David Filipov of the Boston Globe, Marcus Warren of Britain's Daily Telegraph and freelance photographer Michael Yassukovich.
The Foreign Ministry said it had called in the press attaches of the British, U.S. and Spanish embassies and said that if there was a repeat of the incident the journalists might have their accreditation to remain in Russia revoked.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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