MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia, under international pressure to curb its forces in Chechnya, has angrily denied a report that its forces suffered a big loss of life in Grozny.
Reuters correspondent Maria Eismont, one of a small number of correspondents reporting from the Chechen capital for foreign news organizations, said on Thursday that rebels had killed more that 100 Russian soldiers during the night.
She reported that she had seen the bodies of the Russian soldiers lying dead in Grozny after Chechen guerrillas surrounded and destroyed their column of 15 tanks and armoured personnel carriers. The vehicles were burnt out.
Moscow denied it with fury, but gave out nothing fresh about the progress of the conflict.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking on Russian television, said: ''This is total nonsense, provocation aimed at discrediting the Russian military. Total disinformation.''
Alexander Zdanovich, spokesman for the FSB security agency accused some foreign news organizations -- including Reuters -- of being in the pay of foreign intelligence services.
''(There is) clearly an active operation carried out by foreign special services making use of correspondents,'' he said.
Russian tanks had not attacked Grozny since the disastrous 1994-96 Chechen war. Hundreds of ill-prepared Russian conscripts died on the last night of 1994 when their tank units were wiped out on the city's streets. News of slain soldiers in central Grozny was certain to stir grim memories of the 1994 debacle in the same area.
This Chechen war, unlike the last one, has so far gone down well with Russian public opinion. With parliamentary elections taking place on Sunday, it has also boosted the ratings of Prime Minister Putin and his allies in the new Unity bloc.
The Unity leader, Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, said on Thursday that Moscow would see the Chechnya conflict through to the end and hold no talks with the rebels -- directly or through Western mediators.
''An anti-terrorist operation is being conducted here and no one is going to stop it... We do not need any intermediaries here,'' Shoigu said on television.
Knut Vollebaek, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who visited the area on Thursday, repeated calls for a truce near Grozny to let civilians flee.
But he also said he did not expect Moscow to allow him to mediate in the conflict.
Washington and London renewed their appeals to Moscow to halt its military offensive and seek a political solution. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov is likely to come under pressure in Berlin at a meeting of the Group of Eight ministers.
Other Reports On Grozny Fighting Emerge
Russia's Interfax news agency quoted ''unofficial sources'' as saying there was fighting in Grozny overnight when Chechen guerrillas ambushed a Russian army reconnaissance group.
Interfax said 25 Russian servicemen were killed or wounded.
The Russian AVN news agency, which specializes in military affairs, quoted a source at Russian headquarters as saying 50 soldiers died in the clash.
Both Interfax and AVN also carried the Russian military denials.
Vakha Khadzhiyev, 32, one of only a handful of Chechens to escape to the neighboring Ingushetia region on Thursday, told Reuters there had also been fierce fighting overnight in his Chernorechiye neighborhood in southwest Grozny. This could not be independently confirmed.
Russia has rescinded an ultimatum issued last week that gave all residents until December 11 to leave the city or be treated as military targets.
Many civilians remain in the city, hiding in freezing cellars, too scared to venture out. Their food supplies are dwindling and some have been eating pigeons to stay alive.
Minister Shoigu said some 4,500 people have taken advantage of corridors Moscow set up for their escape while between 8,000 to 35,000 civilians remained in Grozny.
''This is not a road of life, it's a road of death,'' said one 73-year-old woman who escaped Grozny into northern Chechnya.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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