MOSCOW, Jan 2 (Reuters) - The Russian military accused Chechen rebels on Sunday of detonating bombs containing toxic chlorine and ammonia in the Chechen capital Grozny.
Itar-Tass news agency quoted Russian regional headquarters saying the rebels had set off several such bombs overnight and early on Sunday near Russian positions in the east, but that the wind had blown the green cloud over the rebel-held city centre.
It was the third time the Russian military
had reported such an attack during its week-long assault on Grozny.
Tass said the troops were equipped for chemical attacks and had not been affected, but that the cloud could be a danger for thousands of civilians trapped in central Grozny.
Elsewhere, the Russian military said
it had stepped up air raids against separatist strongholds in the mountainous
Grozny is the only part of the more densely populated lowland areas of central and northern Chechnya still controlled by the rebels after three months of the Russian onslaught, aimed at restoring Moscow's control over the North Caucasus province.
"NO TIME LIMIT"
Acting President Vladimir Putin, who paid a surprise visit to the Russian-controlled Chechen town of Gudermes late on New Year's Eve hours after the resignation of Boris Yeltsin, said there was no time limit for the troops to take Grozny.
"We have no intention of liberating anything by acting hastily," Putin, who was the little-known boss of the FSB domestic security service before becoming prime minister in August, said in televised comments on Saturday.
"We plan to act in the best possible way, which means as few losses as possible among our servicemen and no losses among the civilian population," he added.
Putin's tough action in Chechnya has made him the most popular politician in Russia and the strongest candidate in the early presidential polls likely to be held on March 26.
Russia's advance in Grozny, the scene of fierce battles during the first Chechen war of 1994-96 in which thousands of troops died, has been slowed down by strong rebel resistance.
Tass quoted the regional military command as saying eight servicemen had been killed and 16 wounded in the last three days of fighting.
FOCUS SHIFTS SOUTH
But the military said their key aim now was to win control of the mountainous southern regions where the rebels enjoy support from the sparse local population and have a powerful network of strongholds and communication lines.
Interfax news agency quoted the military command as saying Russian warplanes had made about 100 sorties at the weekend to support ground operations against the rebel strongholds.
It said rebel strongholds near the villages of Dubai-Yurt, Chishki, Itum-Kale, Khacharoi, Shalazhi, Orekhovo and Maliye Varandy had been bombed.
The Russian military also said it had taken several high positions above the Khacharoi stronghold on Saturday, seizing large amounts of rebel weapons and ammunition.
Apparently unable to resist the overwhelming Russian force in outright fighting, the rebels are increasingly switching to guerrilla-style hit-and-run tactics.
"A full-scale partisan war has just begun," Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov told Reuters Television at a secret location near Grozny on Thursday.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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