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The BBC's Andrew Harding
"Eyewitnesses saw at least 100 bodies"
 real 28k

The BBC's Andrew Harding
"This was a devastating blow for the Russian army"
 real 28k

The BBC's Mike Williams
"The defenders of the city punished them for their folly"
 real 28k

Thursday, 16 December, 1999, 11:27 GMT
Russians ambushed in Grozny

Multiple rocket launcher outside Grozny The Russians have been bombarding Grozny for weeks

Reports from Chechnya say a column of Russian troops that entered the capital Grozny has suffered a major defeat at the hands of separatist fighters.

Battle for the Caucasus
Russian defence ministry officials deny that any such battle took place.

But an unofficial Russian military news agency (AVN) quoted sources at the federal military headquarters as saying that about 50 soldiers on a reconnaisance patrol were killed while a Chechen spokesman said on Thursday the Russians lost up to 350 men.

Independent witnesses say the number of casualties was over 100.

One news agency reporter counted 115 dead Russian soldiers among at least seven burnt-out tanks and eight armoured personnel carriers.

The Russians were said to have been trapped in Minutka Square, about three kilometres (two miles) from the city centre.

Click here for map

The reports said that as many as 2,000 Chechen fighters moved to pick them off with rocket-propelled grenades in a battle that lasted three hours.

The BBC's Andrew Harding, who is on the Chechen border, says it was madness to send Russian troops into a rebel-held city - exactly the same tactics used in the 1994-96 war, in which federal forces lost thousands of young soldiers.

Preparations for assault

Russian forces have been closing in on Grozny for the past month and have kept up a regular bombardment.

Chechen boy A Chechen boy face-to-face with a Russian soldier
Several thousand Chechen fighters are holed up in the city, where they have been preparing for weeks for a Russian assault.

Despite the heavy Russian artillery fire, they appear to be holding their own from bunkers and other fortified positions.

The Chechens successfully defended the capital at the beginning of the 1994-6 war, and later recaptured the city near the end of the conflict.

Returning under duress

As news of the battle began to emerge, a human rights group reported that attempts were being made to force refugees in Ingushetia to return to Russian-controlled areas in Chechnya.

Workers from Human Rights Watch said that refugees in the Sputnik camp were being refused food.

When they asked when their next meal would be, the Chechens were told to go back home and care for themselves.

Knut Vollebaek: Pessimistic about mediation effort Knut Vollebaek: Pessimistic about mediation effort
Correspondents said many refugees wanted to return to the rebel republic after hearing that their houses were still intact, to stop Russian troops looting their property.

But many were too afraid of the Russian troops to go back voluntarily.

Although the camps are run by Ingushetian authorities sympathetic to the Chechens, Human Rights Watch believe they do not want to pick a fight with Moscow.

Ceasefire call

OSCE chairman Knut Vollebaek, who has been calling for peace, is visiting Russian-controlled areas of the republic.

He told reporters before heading for Chechnya that he thought it unlikely he would be allowed to mediate.

"I don't think that is realistic. The Russians haven't said no, but they haven't said yes either. So I don't think that will happen," he said.

On his arrival in the Russian-held northern Chechen village of Znamenskoye, he reiterated a call for a ceasefire near Grozny to allow civilians to flee.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has appealed for internationally mediated peace talks to halt the fighting.

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See also:
10 Dec 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Danger ahead for Russia's military
15 Dec 99 |  Europe
Q & A: Andrew Harding in Chechnya
16 Dec 99 |  Europe
Chechnya's voter appeal
15 Dec 99 |  Europe
Grozny to fall 'in days'
14 Dec 99 |  Europe
Chechens flee besieged capital
30 Sep 99 |  Europe
Profile: Aslan Maskhadov, the quiet general
24 Oct 99 |  Europe
The first bloody battle for Grozny
12 Dec 99 |  Europe
Daily ceasefire set for Grozny

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