SLEPTSOVSK, Russia, Dec 1 (Reuters) - Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev predicted on Wednesday Russian troops would capture a strategic town guarding the eastern gateway to the rebel-held Chechen capital Grozny within two or three days.
"The Chechen town of Argun is sealed off and, I think, within two or three days it will be freed from rebel fighters," RIA news agency quoted Sergeyev as saying during an inspection visit to an infantry division sent from Moscow.
Sergeyev told Interfax news agency Moscow's nine-week-old military operation against Islamic militants based in Chechnya last no longer than three months.
"The bandits find themselves in a worsening situation...The operation may last one, two or three months," he said.
Refugees from Chechnya arriving in the neighbouring province of Ingushetia said Russian troops were storming villages surrounding Grozny, killing or wounding many civilians.
"Over the last two days they have been storming my village," said Dasha Dudayeva, a refugee from Alkhan Yurt, 10 km (six miles) from Grozny.
"There are many dead and wounded, but they haven't taken it yet," she said, after fleeing the village on foot, then taking a bus to arrive in a makeshift tent town in Ingushetia.
Moscow has come under fire from the West for its use of force in Chechnya and its reluctance to allow a mission from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to visit the region, despite a pledge to do so.
But it has given the go-ahead for an official from the Council of Europe to visit the region to see some of the problems, including the plight of refugees who are now believed to number more than 200,000.
REBELS SAY RUSSIANS STALLED
On Tuesday, rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov denied Moscow's claim that troops were advancing quickly into Chechnya's southern heartland, saying the Russian military was hiding heavy losses inflicted by the rebels.
Udugov told Reuters by telephone the rebels had killed 200 Russians in the last two days and Moscow had been forced to continue air raids as they knew they could advance no further.
"There was not any advance of Russian troops over the last five weeks," he said. "Grozny is not blocked to the west or to the east. Russians only have control in the north."
Russian media say the rebels are laying mines and ambushes across the region.
Russian troops are now in control of low-lying northern districts and are pressing in on Grozny from east and west. Military officials announced last week the start of a new phase of the operation, saying they would now pursue Chechen rebels into the densely populated southern mountains.
Moscow has shrugged off Western criticism of its offensive, saying it aims to destroy "terrorists" blamed for a series of devastating bomb blasts in Moscow and other Russian cities.
Russia also says it welcomes international humanitarian aid but resists the idea of outsiders playing any mediatory role in the conflict, as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did in the 1994-96 Chechen war.
The OSCE's current head, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, who is still awaiting Russian permission to visit Chechnya, wants to hold talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to help end the fighting.
A human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, Alvaro Gil-Robles, has arrived in the North Caucasus region of Dagestan, scene of clashes between Russian troops and Islamic rebels in August which helped trigger the Chechnya assault.
Interfax quoted officials in Dagestan as saying Gil-Robles would meet residents and representatives of the government. He was due to return to Moscow later on Wednesday.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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