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Monday, 14 February, 2000, 20:34 GMT
Fighting in key Chechen gorge

Anti-aircraft gun near Vedano Russian firepower has been moving south to the mountains


Russian and Chechen forces have been fighting at both ends of a key gorge in Chechnya's southern mountains.

Battle for the Caucasus
The rebel Kavkaz.org website said there had been hand-to-hand fighting at the northern end of the Argun gorge, near the town of Duba-Yurt.

Russian spokesmen said on Monday they had been fortifying positions at the top and bottom of the valley, in preparation for a major assault

"When it begins you will know about it," Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Russian troops were reported to be streaming towards the Argun gorge on Monday.

Meanwhile, General Vladimir Shamanov, speaking from the top of a snow-capped mountain in Chechnya, told NTV commercial television that 10 of his units were ready to start blockading the rebels.

Click here for map

"We will cut them off as if they were cake, layer by layer," General Shamanov said, pointing at the tall mountains surrounding a small battalion of Russian troops.

Stronghold

The Argun gorge is the main line of communications through the mountains that rise out of the Chechen lowlands and culminate in the ridge that forms the border with Georgia.


Russian military helicopters Helicopters have been ferrying in Russian reinforcements
Russian forces believe there are 3,000 fighters in the rebel stronghold of Shatoi, of a total of up to 8,000 hiding out in the mountains.

Federal troops have claimed to control the Vedeno gorge, to the east of the Argun gorge, though Russia's chief spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said on Monday rebel groups had been found in the territory between the two gorges.

Helicopters have been dropping Russian soldiers to fight their way down into the remote valleys, Russia's NTV television reported.

The campaign shifted to the southern mountains after Chechen forces withdrew from Grozny nearly two weeks ago.

Closed city

Russia's top commander in Chechnya, General Viktor Kazantsev, said Grozny would be closed to civilians for the next three days because rebels could attempt to re-enter the city in disguise.


Public canteen in Grozny Most people in Grozny can only get food at public canteens
He added that the buildings were unsafe, because of mines and unexploded shells.

Mr Yastrzhembsky said the government had no money to rebuild the devastated city.

Russia's civilian representative in Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, said Grozny should become a "closed city".

He said money for rebuilding Grozny would come from Chechnya's own budget, especially proceeds from the oil sector.

At the weekend a spokesman for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said 1,000 rebels were still in Grozny, lying low.




Map of southern Chechnya
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See also:
11 Feb 00 |  Europe
Russians move to the mountains
11 Feb 00 |  Europe
Call for Grozny 'executions' probe
10 Feb 00 |  Europe
In pictures: Grozny in ruins
14 Feb 00 |  Americas
Clinton: US can do business with Putin
07 Feb 00 |  Europe
New government for Chechnya
01 Feb 00 |  Europe
Analysis: Conflict not over yet

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