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Rebel attack on Grozny intensifies

Chechen government retreats to base outside capital

August 7, 1996
Web posted at: 11:35 a.m. EDT (1535 GMT)

GROZNY, Russia (CNN) -- Rebels launched a heavy attack on the Chechen government's central compound Wednesday, forcing the pro-Moscow officials to move to a Russian base outside the capital Grozny.

Russian troops were reportedly surrounded in the besieged compound in Grozny's center, while the rebels roamed freely through much of the city. One building in the government compound was on fire, according to Russian journalists trapped inside the complex.


Rebels fighting for independence from Russia began a surprise offensive on Grozny and two other cities Tuesday, reportedly in retaliation for weeks of Russian attacks on rebel strongholds. As the fighting intensified, a May cease-fire agreement was left virtually worthless while residents of Grozny cowered in basements to escape the battle.

On Wednesday, Russian helicopters blasted rebel positions outside Grozny with rocket fire, while Russian positions on the outskirts of the city blasted artillery fire at central districts. Forces from both sides fired mortars and automatic weapons at each other on city streets.

Other reports indicated that a column of Russian armored vehicles, originally on its way to the city from the Khankala base outside the capital, had been stopped near the city limits because rebels had mined the road. The pro-Moscow government moved from the city center to Khankala to escape the fighting.

Russian officials said more than two dozen Russian soldiers had been killed in the fighting, but denied that rebels had taken control of much of the city. The officials said the rebels had suffered heavy losses.

Doku Zavgayev, head of the Chechen government, was quoted in news reports saying that while Grozny was under fierce attack by rebels, the rest of the region was under the control of "the legal organs of power."

But the intense fighting cast a shadow over Friday's inauguration in Moscow of Boris Yeltsin for his second term as the Russian president. Yeltsin promised during the campaign to end the 20-month long war in Chechnya, but Russia began bombarding rebel bases in the south of the region just after the election.

Yeltsin, who had been recuperating from a health problem, returned to the Kremlin Tuesday for the first time in more than a month. He tapped national security adviser Alexander Lebed -- who finished third in presidential balloting -- to handle the Chechen crisis.

Yeltsin ordered Russian forces to fight the rebels enough "to effectively neutralize" the offensive, but Lebed said that using force to completely end the crisis was not an available option.

"It (use of force) was rejected because it would have produced major bloodshed," Lebed said. "The other option entails peace talks and troop withdrawals."

Peace talks have failed so far -- and Russian troops have been in Chechnya since they first moved to quell the rebellion more than a year and a half ago. Blood is being spilled on the streets of Grozny, and chief Russian negotiator Sergei Stepashin said that peace talks with rebel leaders were impossible after Tuesday's offensive.

"The whole approach to the Chechen problem should be changed," Lebed said, "and a solution should be sought in Moscow. They should be looking for new approach to the Chechen problem now."

Correspondent Mike Hanna, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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