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Wednesday, 16 February, 2000, 17:52 GMT
Russia prepares for Chechen strike

Russian tanks Russian forces are preparing for the final assault

Russia is bombarding targets in the mountains south of the Chechen capital Grozny to prepare the ground for what Russian officials say will be a "decisive strike" against rebel forces.

Battle for the Caucasus
As Russia continues its air and artillery attacks, international pressure is growing for Russia to allow independent observers to assess the situation on the ground.

Russian planes and helicopter gunships have carried out more than 50 raids on rebel positions over the past 24 hours.

The military said some 40 rebels were killed in fighting near the southwestern village of Elistanzhi on Tuesday.

It gave no information on Russian casualties.

The Kavkaz Centre news agency website, one of the few remaining sources of information from the rebel side, said Russian troops tried to outflank the rebels in the Argun Gorge after a frontal attack failed.

Weather advantage

Winter weather favours the Russians, making it easy to chase the rebels on barren snow-covered slopes with high-power long-distance weapons, like guided missiles.

Click here for map

The Russians say up to 8,000 rebels remain in the southern Chechen mountains with no safe supply or escape routes.

Russian units have secured positions on strategic heights overlooking the Argun gorge without encountering resistance, officers said in Duba-Yurt, 30km (20 miles) south of Grozny.

Russian units were heading for Shatoi in the heart of the gorge, one of two southern ravines seen as vital for controlling the rugged south.

Federal forces are also seeking to establish control over the Vedeno gorge to the east.

Russian soldier Russians seem to be firmly in control in the ruined Grozny
Although troops have been fighting rebels in some areas, the main Russian forces have been slow to move in, preferring first to weaken the rebels with air and artillery attacks.

Russian generals have vowed to crush any remaining resistance before the presidential elections on 26 March.

The commander of Russian forces in the north Caucasus, Colonel-General Viktor Kazantsev, has warned that Chechen rebels may try to mobilise their forces around 23 February, when Chechens commemorate the anniversary of mass deportations from their homeland during the Second World War.

International appeals

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, has asked Moscow to allow foreign monitors into Chechnya, and to "act on mounting evidence of serious human rights violations" during the military operation.

Mary Robinson Mary Robinson wants international access to Chechnya
She also said that the failure of the Russian Government to respond to legitimate international worries "leads to heightened concern that allegations of human rights violations may be well-founded".

In the meantime, the International Committee of the Red Cross has again asked the Russian authorities for permission to visit internment camps where, according to press reports, over 100,000 Chechens may be detained.

The official Russian response has been that this demand will be considered as soon as security conditions allow.

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See also:
15 Feb 00 |  Europe
Russians urged to stop 'vacuum' bombings
14 Feb 00 |  Europe
Fighting in key Chechen gorge
14 Feb 00 |  Europe
Civilians banned from Grozny
11 Feb 00 |  Europe
Call for Grozny 'executions' probe

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