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Saturday, October 16, 1999 Published at 00:53 GMT 01:53 UK

World: Europe

Russians 'within sight' of Grozny

The aftermath of an earlier attack on the village of Elistanzhi

Russian federal troops operating in Chechnya are reported to have taken the strategically valuable Tersky heights within sight of Grozny.

Battle for the Caucasus
The heights, some 20km south of the regional capital, were captured with the use of air force and heavy artillery in a fierce battle against 200 entrenched Chechen fighers, the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS said.

Eight guerrillas were reportedly killed.

On Friday Russian forces captured the village of Goragorsky, the last remaining rebel outpost on the road to Grozny.

The BBC's Jonathan Charles: "The use of air power seems to be giving Russia the upper hand"
The moves come amid reports from Moscow that military commanders are planning to launch a new phase of the campaign, moving beyond the occupied "sanitary zone" in the northern third of the breakaway republic.

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted General Viktor Kazantsev, commander of federal forces in the region, as saying the new phase, beginning on Saturday, would aim to wipe out all the "bandit gangs" across Chechnya.

[ image: Russian forces have been strafing the area with anti-aircraft guns]
Russian forces have been strafing the area with anti-aircraft guns
Goragorksy has been the scene of intense fighting all week, with an estimated force of 3,000 Russian soldiers pounding the area with heavy artillery.

They are now in the process of securing the village and are reported to have orders to head for the village of Dolinsky 15km (10 miles) west of Grozny.

"This operation requires lots of grenades because gunmen may be hiding in basements," a Russian officer named Gennady told the French news agency Agence France Presse.

"Clearly most of the Chechens have pulled back," he said. "We have not faced any return fire since Wednesday."

Militant base

Goragorsky is believed to have been used as a base by Islamic militants under the command of Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev. Its capture has been one of the top priorities of Russian commanders since the current operation began on 1 October.

Since then an estimated 170,000 Chechen refugees have fled the fighting and officials in neighbouring republics say they risk being overwhelmed.

In Moscow on Friday, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer renewed pressure on the Russian authorities to seek a negotiated settlement to the crisis.

"We fear that the use of troops and bombs may lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and also hamper a political settlement and even increase support for the Islamists," Mr Fischer told his Russia counterpart, Igor Ivanov.

[ image: Fighting has forced tens of thousands of refugees to flee the republic]
Fighting has forced tens of thousands of refugees to flee the republic
Russia blames Islamic militants operating out of Chechnya for a series of apartment block bombings on Russian territory and for launching armed incursions into Dagestan earlier this year.

Correspondents says it is unclear whether the second phase of the Russian operation announced by General Kazantsev would involve troops advancing into rebel-controlled areas in central and southern Chechnya.

Analysts have warned that the Russians would face huge casualties if they committed to ground operations there.

Military officials in Moscow say so far the offensive has completely wiped out the Islamic rebels' infrastructure.

But Chechen officials have rejected Russian claims that its forces are in control of the northern third of Chechnya, above the Terek River.

The leader of the breakaway republic, Aslan Maskhadov, has said that force will never defeat his people and has repeatedly called for a negotiated end to the conflict.

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