Russians pound Grozny as civilians freeze
GROZNY, Russia, Jan 22: Russian forces pounded Chechen resistance in Grozny today with air strikes, artillery and rockets to keep the opposition trapped in positions while civilians died of cold in their cellars.
A Russian officer was quoted as saying it might take another month for Russian forces to capture the capital of the breakaway southern Russian republic, reports AFP.
Meanwhile at least 37 civilians were reported dead of cold in cellars where they had hidden from bombs as temperatures plunged to minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit).
Rockets supported tank fire on separatist positions in the south of the town while helicopters likewise struck at suburbs.
The barrage was aimed at immobilising Chechens in their positions, the Russians said.
"The Chechens have been using underground passages beneath Grozny to get out behind our lines and attack us from the rear," an interior ministry forces officer said. "We're hitting them hard so they won't dare raise their heads from their shelters."
Fighting raged for control of Minutka square, a key strategic position in the town centre, military sources said.
At least 37 civilians, mainly children and old people, died of cold in Grozny Thursday and Friday, Chechen Health minister Umar Khambiyev was quoted as saying.
"They could not survive prolonged exposure to frozen cellars and malnutrition," Interfax quoted him as saying.
The separatist minister was also quoted as saying he believed the real death toll was much higher among the estimated 10,000 to 40,000 civilians still trapped in the town.
Grozny's remaining civilians have been living in cellars to escape bombing and shelling.
An AFP correspondent reported Russian soldiers were also suffering from cold and complaining of a lack of white camouflage against the snow.
Meanwhile separatists said earlier they destroyed Russian armoured vehicles and killed several soldiers in a dawn attack Saturday on a convoy near Goyty, southwest of Grozny.
"Today at daybreak, our forces attacked an armoured column near Goyty, destroying some vehicles and killing and wounding Russians," said Sayed-Khasan Abumuslimov, an aid to Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov.
The Russian military headquarters cited by the ITAR-TASS news agency said its troops had gained 300 metres (yards) towards the city centre Friday, taking a "tactically important" bridge over the Sunzha river.
The command centre -- based at Mozdok in the neighboring republic of North Ossetia -- said Russian troops were now in "an intensive phase of the anti-terrorist operation."
Abumuslimov said that each side had held its ground Friday while Russian artillery gunners constantly pounded neighborhoods under Chechen control, confirming earlier Russian reports.
He added that 10 Chechens and about 60 Russians had been killed over a 24-hour period.
According to Russian figures, more than 500 Chechens died during the same period, with federal casualties listed as five dead and 11 wounded for the past two days.
But on Friday, Russian officers in Grozny told AFP that 20 of their men had been killed in just one neighbourhood.
None of the reports could be independently confirmed.
The Russians also said they had repelled an attempt by about 300 Chechens to infiltrate their lines and reinforce insurgents inside the city.
Their forward headquarters in Mozdok catagorically denied a report that it had received a video cassette showing Russian Major-General Mikhail Malofeyev in the hands of captors.
Malofeyev was reported missing on Tuesday, the army said, and was "probably" killed in action.