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William Horsley in Moscow
"Here there's little mercy shown on either side"
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UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook
"The level of military violence against civilians is wholly unacceptable"
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Sunday, 9 January, 2000, 09:47 GMT
Russian war dead rising

Russian troops Russian forces are thought to be gearing up for a major push

Russian soldiers say they are suffering high casualties as fierce fighting continues between Chechen militants and Russian forces trying to take Chechnya's capital city, Grozny.

Battle for the Caucasus
In unprecedented interviews with the Russian media, soldiers spoke of truck-loads of dead and injured troops being transported back across the border.

Troops in Grozny itself spoke of being attacked with rockets, guns and poison gas.

Chechen commanders are quoted as saying they have re-captured part of the town of Shali, south-east of Grozny, in a surprise attack. Russia said two policemen had been killed in an attack on their checkpoints.

New offensive

Speculation is growing that Russian forces are regrouping for a new offensive on Grozny.

One commander, General Sergei Makarov, said troops were now being given more complicated tasks.

Despite a Russian announcement that the bombardment of Grozny was being temporarily halted to give civilians a break, reports say there has been fierce fighting in the city, and air strikes were continuing over nearby areas.

Interfax news agency reported on Sunday that Russian aircraft had flown 71 missions in Chechnya in the last 24 hours, despite bad weather.

Russian Public TV, reporting from Grozny's outskirts, said sporadic street fighting was continuing and that the city remained a "war zone".

Its correspondent said Russian artillery was still shelling the city's industrial areas, but added that air raids remained suspended.

Mr Putin attends a Christmas service in Moscow Mr Putin attends a Christmas service in Moscow

And in southern Chechnya the Russians have stepped up their campaign against the stronghold of Vedeno - birthplace of rebel leader Shamil Basayev - deploying elite paratroopers in the area.

On Friday, Russia's acting president Vladimir Putin announced a suspension of the aerial and artillery bombardment of Grozny for humanitarian reasons, timed to coincide with the Orthodox Christmas and the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

"Our aims remain unchanged and they will be achieved," Mr Putin told reporters at a Christmas service in Moscow.

"As for Grozny, remember what day it is now for Orthodox Christians and tomorrow for Muslims. We will not forget that and we will respect the feelings of believers."

Thousands of civilians are believed to be still sheltering in the cellars of the city, but the BBC's Robert Parsons, reporting from the Russian military headquarters at Mozdok, says it is unlikely that many will take the opportunity to leave.

A BBC Correspondent in Moscow says the Russian media has so far strongly supported the conflict, but has begun to accuse the Russian army of making false claims of victory.

Russians bogged down

Russia launched its military campaign in September after blaming a series of deadly apartment bombings in Russia on Chechnya-based Islamic militants.

The ground assault on Grozny started in earnest on Christmas Day after a sustained air attack aimed at weakening the city's defences. Russian officials widely predicted the battle for the capital would be a short one.

One general said it would be a matter of days and Mr Putin, the then prime minister, said before the assault started that the end of the campaign was close.

But Russian troops have become bogged down in bitter street fighting, raising fears of a repeat of their defeat in the same city in 1996.

The United Nations refugee agency has been told by the authorities in neighbouring Ingushetia that 70,000 Chechen refugees have returned to Russian-controlled northern areas of the republic.

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See also:
07 Jan 00 |  Europe
Russians hold their fire
08 Jan 00 |  Media reports
Russia media criticise Chechen campaign
25 Nov 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Russia's fighting tactics
24 Oct 99 |  Europe
The first bloody battle for Grozny
07 Jan 00 |  Europe
Refugees return to Chechnya
06 Jan 00 |  Europe
Russian army battered in Grozny
28 Dec 99 |  Europe
Russia gains 'upper hand' in Grozny

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