By Elizabeth Piper
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian troops edged closer to the center of the Chechen capital Grozny on Thursday, struggling against rebel snipers amid increasingly frequent reports of mounting casualties in the campaign.
Interfax news agency said Russian warplanes and helicopters had flown more than 100 sorties, well above the average, despite severe winter weather that has hampered visibility.
The offensive was to be the key point of discussion when U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in Moscow later on Thursday for talks with officials.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was due to travel to the French city of Strasbourg, where the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, a human rights body, was to discuss whether to kick out Russian delegates over Chechnya.
The West has accused Moscow of using indiscriminate force against civilians in its drive to restore control over the rebel region. Annan and prominent Western figures have called for talks to end the conflict.
''I have always pressed for a peaceful and political solution, and I've been very concerned about the situation of the civilians,'' Annan said at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Russia has launched a campaign to improve the image of the Chechnya offensive, but private NTV television said troops were moving slowly in Grozny and more losses were inevitable.
Russian troops met with early success in the first three months of their campaign, but have become bogged down since surrounding Grozny in December.
Death Toll Rising
The latest Russian casualty totals suggest between 20 and 30 soldiers have been killed per day since the new year, several times as many as before. Gains on the ground have been slight.
NTV reported late on Wednesday that troops were inching forward house by house from the south toward the center of Grozny. Patrols checked everything in their path for traps, including rubbish bins.
''As they proceed, the losses will increase,'' the NTV correspondent said, showing pictures of flattened buildings and streets strewn with rubble.
A soldier, recuperating in a hospital just outside the region, said the number of casualties reported understated the real figures.
''Those (soldiers) who watch the television want to blow it up. We can't watch the television any more,'' said one serviceman, sitting on a hospital bed with other young soldiers.
NTV said Moscow had poured in more troops, bringing the total contingent in the North Caucasus region to between 120,000 and 140,000. Previous estimates had put troop levels at 100,000.
Four months into its campaign, Russia controls the region's northern steppes and the valley south of Grozny that forms the province's heartland. But the capital and mountains to the south are easier for the outnumbered but mobile guerrillas to defend.
The difficulties in taking Grozny could yet harm Acting President Vladimir Putin's ratings ahead of a presidential election due on March 26.
Putin's tough stance on Chechnya has helped make him Russia's most popular politician, but the rising casualties could revive bitter memories of the 1994-96 war, which led to the humiliating withdrawal of Russian troops from the region.
On Wednesday, former Kremlin spin doctor Sergei Yastrzhembsky made his debut as the man charged with improving the image of the campaign. He said he would try to increase the flow of information but there would be certain limitations.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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