MOSCOW (Reuters) - Chechnya's snowcapped southern mountains resounded to the thunder of bomb and rocket attacks on Tuesday as Russian forces hammered remaining Chechen rebel redoubts, Russian media and rebel reports said. Russia has wrested control of most of the region from separatist guerrillas and a general vowed on Monday to slice into rebel positions layer by layer, ''as if they were a cake.''
Interfax news agency quoted the Russian military as saying its aviation flew more than 70 combat missions in the last 24 hours, hitting rebels in the key Argun and Vedeno gorges, where up to 8,000 guerrillas are believed to be holed up.
But there were no reports of Russia launching an all-out assault on the two gorges, a move which cost it dearly during the 1994-96 war. Acting President Vladimir Putin told Russian reporters in Moscow that saving soldier lives was a priority.
Putin was also quoted as saying the FSB security service, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB, should guarantee the safety of missing Russian war reporter Andrei Babitsky.
Dogs Search For Mines In Sealed Off Grozny
The Russian-held Chechen capital Grozny was sealed off to returning civilians. Itar-Tass news agency said sappers were using dogs to find explosives among the city's ruins. Barely a single building has escaped serious damage in Grozny.
Russia's top commander in Chechnya, General Viktor Kazantsev, said on Monday he imposed the ban on civilian returns to let troops root out remaining guerrillas.
He said rebels had tried to enter Grozny disguised as civilians to spirit their wounded out of the city, which Russian forces seized two weeks ago.
The rebels have pledged to stage hit-and-run attacks in Russian-held areas. Russian news agencies said Interior Ministry troops were combing villages for rebels. The rebel Web site Kavkaz.org said much of the fighting was focused on the Argun gorge, a conduit through the mountains. Moscow has said it has blocked rebels off at either end.
The rebels said their fighters inflicted losses on the Russians in a clash at Itum-Kale, at the southern end of the valley. The Web site said Russian troops were building up supplies and troops in the area.
It said rebels were subjected to ''practically ceaseless'' rocket and artillery attacks as well as air strikes. At Duba-Yurt at the northern end of the Argun gorge, Russian attack helicopters fired at rebels.
Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said on Monday the Vedeno gorge was under control, but gave no indication whether that amounted to more than holding the hills nearby.
Putin Tells Fsb To Look After Missing Reporter
In Moscow, Putin was quoted by RIA news agency as saying he had told the FSB to ''guarantee the safety and freedom'' of Babitsky. The disappearance of the 35-year-old reporter has unleashed a political and diplomatic outcry.
Babitsky, who works for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, has not made contact with his family or editors since mid-January. Moscow said it had handed him over to Chechen rebels in a prisoner exchange on February 3 after he was arrested for reporting from Chechnya without permission.
Moscow said the swap took place with Babitsky's agreement and the sanction of the prosecutor's office. But Radio Liberty has cast doubt on the veracity of an FSB video of the handover and on the legality of swapping one Russian citizen for others.
Kavkaz.org said the rebels had been approached at the end of January by Russians proposing to swap Babitsky for three captive soldiers. Rebels have previously denied the swap took place. The Web site said it had no further details.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet