Russian forces made little headway in the battle for control of Grozny last week, as the military acknowledged that more than 900 men had been killed since fighting began last September.
The Russians have been trying to wrest Grozny from Chechen militants for a month, and for the past week they have concentrated on seizing Minutka Square, which would give federal forces leverage for taking the center of the city.
Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev claimed that the operation to take Grozny was "approaching breakthrough," according to Interfax.
"Notwithstanding the losses among the storming groups in Grozny, the fighters' losses are far higher than ours," Sergeyev said.
Earlier in the week, separate Russian news reports gave contradictory figures for the war dead. Interfax quoted sources in the security forces as saying 1,173 Russian soldiers had been killed in Chechnya, while shortly before, ITAR-TASS had reported a Defense Ministry figure of more than 900. Privately owned NTV television, meanwhile, claimed that 10 times more troops were now being killed than authorities were acknowledging.
Chechen snipers were reported to be firing from high-rises west and southwest of Minutka Square, while federal tanks continued to pound the rebel positions from the southeast. Russian soldiers and rebels were also fighting from trenches dug into streets southeast of the square, Interfax quoted a Chechen military commander as saying.
Many positions in the city have changed hands several times as the highly mobile rebels have moved around frequently and attacked the Russians from all sides. Russian servicemen have often taken buildings by day only to abandon them at night for fear of rebel attacks.
Interfax, citing military sources in Grozny, also reported Friday that about 100 rebels attacked a Russian base in the neighboring republic of Dagestan, with a protracted clash being fought before the militants were driven back.
Jordanian-born militant rebel leader Khattab, one of the men Moscow blames for the incursion into Dagestan last August that helped trigger hostilities in the region, told Reuters Television News that fighters would stage more of the lightning raids that caught the Russians off-guard earlier in January.
"There is a big war going on with much military equipment, artillery and planes, but our position is good in Grozny and in the mountains," he said. "The Mujahadeen are not only ready to hit any city in Chechnya, but any city in Russia as well."
Russian government officials said Friday they were taking the threats seriously and had ordered urgent measures to counter possible attacks, a security spokesman told Russian TV. Alexander Zdanovich of for the FSB security service told NTV that his agency knew of plans by Chechen guerrillas to hit targets in Russia and that one potentially powerful explosion had already been prevented.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based independent military analyst, said one of the key reasons for Russia's failure to beat back the rebels is that the country doesn't have a proper infantry.
"A Chechen company is about the equivalent of a Russian brigade today, our generals have told me, and there is no doubt that the Chechens are 20 times better fighters on top of that," he said.
At the same time, the Red Cross reminded Russia of its obligations regarding the protection of civilians under the Geneva Convention.
"The IRC's immediate concern is to find solutions allowing people in combat zones to receive the minimum assistance needed for their survival, or leave for safer areas," the organization said in a statement.
"The city's remaining inhabitants are facing perilous conditions and have extremely limited access to food, water, medical care, electricity or gas," the statement said.
But Russia continued to use its superior firepower on the same day as the Red Cross report was released, with Russian SU-24 and SU-25 warplanes and Mi-24 helicopter gunships raining bombs on Grozny and Chechnya's southern mountains. The military said Russian aircraft flew 100 sorties in 24 hours – heavy snowfall, however, limited raids last Friday.
This occurred as the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, meeting in Strasbourg, decided by a small margin not to suspend Russia from the organization, allowing it a three-month grace period to bring its policies back in line with the body.
However, military analyst Felgenhauer said that, although this period may or may not see the fall of Grozny, the war in Chechnya is likely to be a protracted affair. "Every general I've spoken to says that it will take at least three or four years to complete the operations in Chechnya," he said.
(Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)