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Residents flee in panic as Grozny becomes a battleground

soldier

August 11, 1996
Web posted at: 12:30 a.m. EDT (0430 GMT)

GROZNY, Russia (CNN) -- As the battle for the war-scarred city of Grozny raged for a fifth day Saturday, the Russian government claimed it had gained the upper hand on rebel fighters, but the separatists insisted they still controlled the Chechen capital.

Some Grozny residents were fleeing by car, truck and on foot through one relatively safe western area. Other terrified civilians were hiding in the basements of their homes.

massive exodus

"Most of the city is mined, and there's a lot of aerial bombardments," said Fery Aalam, head of the international Red Cross in Grozny. "People cannot move. When they start to move, they get shot at."

There was fierce fighting in the streets. Russian warplanes and helicopters pounded rebel positions as reinforcements tried to break through rebel lines to bolster besieged government troops. Chechen fighters, meanwhile, fired rocked-propelled grenades and lobbed makeshift firebombs -- often indiscriminately, observers said.

"They are bombing everywhere, and the children are frightened," one Chechen woman said. "Why is this happening to us? What are we guilty of?"

children

A group of about 10 journalists and an unknown number of civilians remained trapped in a hotel near the compound of the Moscow-backed government. Russian officials reported that government troops had rescued the group, but the journalists angrily denied that.

"It's yet another lie," Russian Television's Abrek Baikov said in a broadcast report. "We're sick of lies."

Day of mourning

As the conflict in the breakaway republic continued, President Boris Yeltsin fired his personal representative in the region, Oleg Lobov. Yeltsin's gave Alexander Lebed, his national security adviser and former political rival, the formidable task of resolving the conflict.

woman crying

Yeltsin declared Saturday a day of mourning for the victims in Chechnya. More than 30,000 people -- most of them civilians -- have died since Yeltsin sent in troops in December 1994 to quash a bid for independence.

The bloodshed in Chechnya -- and the military's failure to quell the rebels -- has turned into a major embarrassment for Yeltsin. The war is very unpopular at home, and the Kremlin's handling of the conflict has met with criticism abroad.

German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel expressed "deep concern" Saturday over the continued fighting.

"Our appeal is unambiguous," Kinkel told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. "President Yeltsin must bring this war in Chechnya to an end, but the rebels must also play their part."

In Moscow, Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov told the lower house of parliament that government forces were gaining.

"The situation has passed the turning point," Kulikov said.

Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, who also addressed the State Duma, admitted the "situation is difficult," but added, "However, I will tell you that, today, now, as I stand before you on the podium...the initiative has passed to the federal forces."

Reports from Grozny, however, said the rebels who launched their latest offensive on Tuesday were still controlling the city center.

"The militants are resisting fiercely. There is fighting for virtually every house," an official with the Russian military command told the Interfax news agency.

Correspondent Steve Harrigan, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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