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Fighting rages on in Chechnya

smoke

Situation said to be 'totally out of control'

August 9, 1996
Web posted at: 6:50 p.m. EDT (2250 GMT)

GROZNY, Chechnya (CNN) -- Intensive fighting rocked Grozny Friday on the fourth day of a rebel offensive in the Chechen capital.

In Moscow, President Boris Yeltsin said "terrorist raids will be decisively put down," and declared Saturday a national day of mourning for the victims of the fighting. But he also said that "even in this difficult situation, I continue to insist that there is no other way to settle the conflict in Chechnya other than the peace negotiations I began on May 27."

Hundreds of heavily armed rebels reportedly controlled the center of Grozny after Russian reinforcements failed to retake the battered city.

Chechnian rebel

"The situation is totally out of control," a Russian military source told the Interfax news agency, which reported that Chechen rebels had surrounded some 7,000 Russian soldiers.

CNN's Steve Harrigan reported from Grozny that Russian helicopters were pounding Chechens with missiles in a furious display of force.

Throughout the day, he said, rebels were engaged in intense fighting with Russian forces. The Chechen troops had reportedly surrounded a government compound trapping Russian troops inside.

Journalists freed

Some journalists, trapped in besieged government buildings, were freed Friday in an operation by Russian special forces, Russian commanders told Interfax.

Earlier in the day, the trapped journalists had broadcast desperate calls for help as they sought shelter in a basement from machine-gun fire and high explosives. The fate of other civilians trapped with the journalists was not yet known.

Itar-Tass news agency correspondent Sergei Trofimov, one of those besieged in the government compound, said in a report that the battle was still raging and there was little sign of Russian reinforcements.

Kremlin said to be divided over conflict

Yeltsin

Reports of the latest wave of fighting in Chechnya came Friday as Yeltsin was being sworn in for a second term.

Aides said Yeltsin would be going on vacation and would hand over supervision of the situation to his security adviser and former political rival Alexander Lebed, who has been critical of Yeltsin's handling of the separatist movement.

The man Yeltsin defeated to win re-election, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said the Kremlin is divided over how to run the Russian operation in Chechnya.

"One group in the Kremlin orders the retreat of the troops from the city, while the other group is giving orders to seize the city on the day of the inauguration of the president," he said.

"From a military stand point, it's a lousy operation; from the political and moral point of view it is a continuation of mass murder and lawlessness which any normal person condemns. I don't see any consistent policy of peace in the region, at the same time I don't see any coordination of the law enforcement units which are responsible for the situation there."

At least 30,000 people have died in the Chechen conflict since Russian troops were sent to quell the rebellion in the region in December 1994.

During his campaign, Yeltsin promised to end the war in Chechnya and met with rebel leaders to discuss a peace agreement. Peace efforts since have collapsed, with each side accusing the other of bad faith.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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