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OIL WELLS BURN AMID RUSSIAN ASSAULT

Entrenched rebels kept the advancing Russian forces out of the coveted center of Chechnya's capital Thursday as blazing oil wells on the city's southern edge sent black columns of smoke billowing into the air.

The Russians pushed on with their six-day-old offensive to seize the capital, Grozny, though commanders said they were moving cautiously because the roads were heavily mined. Russian artillery battered the city from all sides. At least 15 oil wells went up in flames.

The Russian military reported fierce fighting in the capital's eastern neighborhoods, where federal forces have been trying to establish control. But there was no sign in central Grozny of Russian forces or allied, pro-Moscow Chechen militia.

"All Russian attempts to reach the city center have failed," said Mumadi Saidayev, chief of staff of the Chechen forces. "In some areas, we have managed to push the Russians back. We have left some quarters on the outskirts because they were difficult to defend."

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