MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's military and Chechen rebel fighters both reported battle successes on Wednesday and presented contrasting pictures of a conflict that has trapped thousands of civilians in the regional capital, Grozny.
''The operation in Chechnya is going according to plan,'' Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency after meeting Acting President Vladimir Putin.
The war has made Putin, who is also prime minister, Russia's most popular politician and favorite to win a presidential election due in March following the New Year's Eve resignation of Boris Yeltsin. Electoral success for Putin depends mostly on good news from Chechnya.
A representative of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov told Interfax the course of the war had changed since fighting moved to Grozny and the rugged southern mountains.
''Russia's military parade in Chechnya has ended and a major turnaround in the second Chechen war is under way,'' Apti Batalov said, referring to the first stage of the war in which Russian troops methodically captured Chechen lowlands.
Facts, Figures Differ Wildly
With foreign media access severely limited and Russian media confined to military bases and occasional trips to areas controlled by Moscow, it was impossible to verify casualty figures or the situation on the ground.
Latest official reports from Chechnya, published by Itar-Tass news agency, said in the last 24 hours the Russian military had killed up to 150 rebels. Five Russian troops were killed or had died of earlier wounds.
The Chechen rebel web site www.kavkaz.org said Moscow had lost 70 men in the southern mountains on Tuesday.
Maskhadov's representative told Interfax Russia had lost 1,000 servicemen in the last week in the battle for Grozny.
Tass said up to 2,000 rebels were resisting Russian troops trying to seize Grozny since the end of December.
One of the battle areas named by Tass was the northwestern Staropromyslovsky district, earlier reported to have been captured by Moscow's troops.
Russian reports say about 20,000 civilians remain trapped in Grozny while rebels put the figure at 40,000.
Rare footage shown on Tuesday by commercial NTV television showed Grozny's streets pitted with craters and littered with the remains of rockets and other weapons. The blackened and shattered ruins of buildings loomed over deserted roads.
Residents scurried through mud and debris to shelter in cellars during air raids, the television footage showed. Chechen rebels launched mortar shells, shouted ''Allahu Akbar'' (God is great) and paused to recite prayers.
Russian troops destroyed Grozny in the disastrous 1994-1996 war which ended in their withdrawal from the region. The city, once home to 400,000 people, was never restored.
Putin Needs Quick And Relatively Bloodless Win
Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in that war, along with many Russian servicemen and Chechen rebels, and Putin's declared aim is to avoid a repetition.
The acting president has vowed to do all he can to limit civilian and Russian military losses.
''We have the same main criteria -- to fulfil the task with minimal losses among the troops,'' Defense Minister Sergeyev said.
Western leaders have called for a quick end to the offensive, which has prompted more than 200,000 refugees to flee the fighting.
French President Jacques Chirac on Tuesday renewed the pressure, calling for a political solution and saying Chechnya's civilian population was being wiped out.
Russia dismisses Western criticism by saying its operations are aimed against ''international terrorists'' and that it has no quarrel with Islam or Chechnya's mostly Muslim population.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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