Moscow, 11 February 2000 (RFE/RL) - Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev says Russian ground troops could begin an offensive against Chechen rebels in the southern mountains as early as today. Heavy air strikes preceded what Sergeyev says will be a decisive Russian offensive.
The Russian Air Force says it has flown 160 sorties in the last 24 hours mostly against Chechen insurgent positions in the Argun valley and near Vedeno.
The Russian military command says 50,000 servicemen will be deployed in the operation against the rebel force, which Moscow estimates publicly at between 5,000 and 7,000 insurgents.
The private Russian television station NTV quotes Chechen
President Aslan Maskhadov as having said last night that the fighting is turning into partisan warfare throughout Chechnya. Maskhadov said Chechen rebels plan to start what he called a people's war in the "mountains, on the plains, and in every village."
He denied Moscow's claims that the Russian military assault on Chechnya was a battle against terrorism, saying it was a war against the Chechen people. On Monday, Maskhadov said his troops aimed to retake the Chechen capital Grozny which has been under Russian control for more than a week.
Meanwhile, a representative of Maskhadov, Zalimkhan Yandarbiev, said in Pakistan today that the Muslim world should grant Chechnya diplomatic recognition.
Meanwhile, Russian authorities continued to make contradictory comments on missing RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky. Sergei Yastrzembsky, presidential spokesman on Chechnya, told reporters in Moscow that "circumstances" prevent officials from discussing the case. But Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo was quoted by the ITAR-TASS saying Babitsky is "alive and in good health" in southern Chechnya. Rushailo did not present any evidence to support his remarks.