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Chechen fighters fleeing Grozny

Large numbers of Chechen rebels fled Grozny Tuesday, taking heavy casualties and apparently beginning a withdrawal that would open the way to Russia's conquest of the devastated capital.

The guerrillas started pulling out Monday night, according to officials of Chechnya's separatist government and witnesses. They had defended the city for four months, first digging in under intense bombardment and more recently battling Russian troops in street battles.

While official reports differed over whether all the Chechen fighters had left Grozny, there was agreement that many had abandoned its defense. A Russian capture of Grozny would give Moscow control of all major urban areas in Chechnya and likely confine the guerrillas' fight to mountainous regions in the south.

The fighters "have been completely withdrawn from the city," said Movladi Udugov, a spokesman for the Chechen government of President Aslan Maskhadov. "The withdrawal was carried out in an orderly fashion."

A Moscow spokesman said that fighting continued in some parts of the city but that Russian troops had occupied a strategic downtown square and were battling Chechen rebels outside the capital where they apparently had retreated. Russian soldiers said rebel resistance declined markedly.

Chechen fighters and local residents said several top Chechen commanders were wounded or killed in action in recent days. One was Shamil Basayev, who lost his leg to a mine when he led hundreds of fighters out of Grozny, Chechen officials said. About 25 fighters in Basayev's unit died as they left the city under artillery fire and through mine fields, the officials said.

Basayev, a Chechen leader in the war against Russia from 1994 to 1996, is viewed by Chechens as a hero and by Russians as a detested terrorist. The Russians moved into Chechnya last year in part to retaliate against raids led by Basayev into Dagestan, a neighboring Russian region.

The capture of Grozny is one of two expressed Russian requirements for declaring victory in Chechnya. The other is the elimination of large "bandit" groups in southern regions. "Once this is achieved, we can say that the military phase of the operation is ending," said Sergei Yastrzhembsky, chief war spokesman for acting President Vladimir Putin's government.

The Russian advance Tuesday remained cautious. The death toll has risen as high as 25 a day since the storming of the city began more than a month ago. Some troops predicted Islamic militants still in Grozny will not leave without a fight. "There are a lot of people who won't surrender," said Valery Rirakov, a regimental commander.

If Grozny falls, attention will quickly turn to whether the rebels can make good a threat to pursue hit-and-run guerrilla tactics on stationary Russian positions. It was a course of action that ultimately wore down the Russians in the first Chechen conflict, when separatists expelled Russian forces and won de facto independence.

The cost of restoring the city will be immense, and all the while, Moscow's forces may be vulnerable to attack. This might account for the restrained tone of Russian remarks Tuesday; if large numbers of guerrillas simply escaped the city, it would undermine a main objective, which was to "liquidate terrorist bands."

Whether Russia will open political talks on resolving the Chechen issue in the wake of the conquest of Grozny is an open question. Russian officials have laid down several conditions for talks with Maskhadov, including the handing over of alleged terrorists and agreement to submit to rule from Moscow.