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Chechnya: Separatist Fighters Seize Government Buildings in Grozny

Grozny, August 7 (RFE/RL) -- Chechen separatist fighters have seized the city's main telephone exchange in the second day of a battle for pro-Moscow government buildings in the center of the breakaway republic's capital, an Interfax correspondent in Grozny reports.

Fierce fighting persists around the government buildings and the Russian command is taking what it calls "all possible steps" to take back the city center and evacuate civilians and journalists stranded in the central pro-Moscow government complex, according to Russian news agencies.

A Russian RIA news agency correspondent in the complex told Interfax that Chechen spokesman Movladi Udugov has offered to open a corridor to let them out.

"The situation is critical," Akhmal Saidov, deputy head of the Russian administration in Grozny, told Itar-Tass. He indicated the situation was much more serious than during the last major separatist assault on Grozny in March.

Some 2,000 Chechen fighters are in Grozny, said Ruslan Tsakayev, secretary of pro-Moscow Chechnya's security council. Chechen spokesman Udugov said that some 3,000 fighters penetrated the town at dawn yesterday.

Several buildings, including the regional interior ministry, are reported to be on fire and columns of black smoke hang over Grozny. Earlier, Russian helicopters, gun ships and jets fired rockets at separatists positions in central Grozny, and Russian artillery shelled the city outskirts, said RFE/RL's correspondent.

The pro-Moscow government has moved to the Russian base of Khankala outside Grozny. Russian Defense units, deployed in the region, are preparing to launch a counter-offensive with Interior Ministry forces. Russian armored carriers heading from Khankala towards the capital had to stop outside the city because the road had been mined.

At least 40 people were hospitalized in Grozny this morning, and 10 of them died, said RFE/RL's correspondent. Russian officials say some 20 Russian servicemen died and at least 200 were injured in the last 24 hours. They claimed heavy losses among separatists, but gave no figures.

Two Russian helicopters today attacked buses and cars trying to flee Grozny, killing at least 22 people, including six children and wounding 30 others, Udugov told RFE/RL. The report could not be independently confirmed. Udugov also said separatists have shot down six Russian helicopters and destroyed 26 armored vehicles in their offensive on Grozny.

Meanwhile in Moscow, the secretary of the security council, Aleksander Lebed, said "the Russian army will take adequate measures" if Chechen fighters do not immediately cease fire and retreat from Grozny.

But Lebed also said Moscow is determined to resolve the Chechen conflict by peaceful means despite the latest flareup in fighting.

Akhyat Idigov, chairman of the pro-Moscow Chechen parliament, today told RFE/RL that he has called on Russian President Boris Yeltsin to put an end on fighting in Chechnya.

And human rights activist Yelena Bonner, hospitalized since last week in a Moscow clinic, told RFE/RL that she has also called on Yeltsin to use his powers as chief commander of Russia's armed forces to order a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from the breakaway republic.

Bonner also called on Yeltsin to form a new commission on the settlement of the Chechen conflict, a commission of Russian representatives "seriously aiming at putting an end to fighting in Chechnya."

Bonner urged Yeltsin to take these and other steps to end the renewed fighting in Chechnya before his inauguration on Friday.