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Fierce Fighting Around Bamut Continues

Moscow, May 23 (RFE/RL) -- Fierce battles between Russian forces and Chechen separatists are continuing around the southwestern Chechen stronghold of Bamut today.

Itar-tass quotes a high-ranking Russian military official as saying Russian troops "fully control the strategic heights" around the former Soviet missile base. This report could not be independently confirmed.

Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, on a tour of Siberia, said today that some 800 separatists are based in Bamut. Grachev said foreign mercenaries hired by the Chechens are also fighting in Bamut.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Sergei Medvedev said today that Russian President Boris Yeltsin is ready to open talks on a Chechen settlement with all sides involved in the conflict. Medvedev said Yeltsin is now studying where such talks could take place.

Yesterday, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin confirmed once again that Yeltsin will soon travel to Chechnya. No date has yet been set.