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Civilians flee besieged Chechen capital

August 11, 1996
Web posted at: 10:35 a.m. EDT (1435 GMT)

GROZNY, Russia (CNN) -- The European Union Sunday called on the Russian army and Chechen rebels to cease fire immediately, but the bloody struggle in the streets of Grozny showed no sign of abating. (Reporter Steve Harrigan describes the fighting - 172K AIFF or WAV sound)icon

With white flags tied to their cars, residents of the Chechen capital flooded from the city by the thousands. In some cases, as many as eight or nine people were packed into a single, tiny Russian car.

Separatist rebels claimed they maintained control of the city, which they entered Tuesday in a surprise attack. Russian troops battled to break a blockade around the central government compound where a number of their own troops were trapped.

"Groups of rebels in varying numbers are shooting from all sides and Russian units have virtually no rearguard," a Russian military spokesman said in a report by the Interfax news agency.

The rebel military command told Interfax that several armored vehicles broke through the blockade Saturday, reaching the compound and pushing the rebels back about 100 yards. The soldiers evacuated a group of civilians trapped in the area. (Reporter Steve Harrigan describes the Chechen frontlines - 253K AIFF or WAV sound)icon

Battles also continued on the outskirts of the city and elsewhere in Chechnya. Rebels claimed to have killed 150 Russian troops and destroyed more than 30 armored vehicles in an ambush in the Kurchaloi region east of Grozny.

Accurate casualty counts have not been forthcoming, however. Russia reported up to 200 soldiers killed in the six days of fighting, while the rebels claim to have killed more than 1,000. The separatists say they have lost 29 fighters, but the Russians say hundreds have died.

The number of civilian casualties was unconfirmed, but the European Union, in a statement released late Saturday, said it "deplores in particular the ensuing civilian casualties and the suffering" caused by the fighting.

"The EU appeals to both sides in the conflict to institute an immediate cease-fire," said the statement, released through the Irish government, which currently holds the EU presidency. "It further calls for a return by the parties to the negotiating table."

The Grozny battle has proven embarrassing to Russia and President Boris Yeltsin, who promised during this summer's election campaign to end the Chechen crisis.

Yeltsin fired his personal representative to Chechnya, and dispatched national security adviser Alexander Lebed to solve the crisis. Lebed, Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin met Sunday at the president's country home to discuss the situation, and Yeltsin instructed Chernomyrdin to meet with the State Commission on Chechnya to determine why Russian troops were caught off guard when the rebels attacked.

Yeltsin, inaugurated for his second term as Russia's president Friday, ordered a criminal probe into the debacle. He has blamed it in part on "gross miscalculations" by Russian officials and by the pro-Moscow Chechen government.

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

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