SOUTHERN CHECHNYA, Russia -- Russian military advances into rebel-held southern Chechnya are trapping civilians in cellars and sending others fleeing through snowy mountain passes and forests littered with corpses, Chechen officials said Sunday.
After days of heavy fighting, the Russian military claimed Sunday to have made inroads into Chechnya's southern mountains, capturing strategic heights overlooking Vedeno, a major rebel stronghold. Russian forces can now position artillery on the heights, making it easier to drive the rebels out of Vedeno.But the constant air and artillery attacks that precede the advance of Russian troops have left civilians trapped in southern mountain villages, afraid to venture under the bombs and shells raining on the roads, Chechen officials and civilians said.
Residents of the capital Grozny who had fled the city in hopes of escaping to Georgia, which borders Chechnya to the south, have been stuck in the villages of Itum-Kale, 50 miles south of Grozny, and Shatoi, 35 miles south of Grozny.
"People cannot venture out of their homes because the shelling continues around the clock," said Ramzan Bisiyev, head of the village administration in Rodina, just outside the capital Grozny.
Bisiyev, an Itum-Kale native, was trying Sunday to negotiate with Russian authorities for a safe corridor so civilians could leave southern Chechnya for Russian-controlled areas in the north.
"In despair, people go through the forests, along mountain passes and come under artillery fire. A lot of dead bodies lie around those forests," said Bisiyev, who visited southern Chechnya last week.
No figures were available on the number of civilians trapped in the south, but Bisiyev said only about 10 percent of residents had managed to leave the area.
Having swept across the plains in Chechnya's north, Russian forces have been trying to crush rebel fighters concentrated in the mountainous south.
After taking the heights near Vedeno, the Russian forces seized a large cache of arms and ammunition, including grenade launchers, two anti-aircraft rocket launchers and several flame-throwers, said Maj. Alexander Diordiev, a military spokesman.
Russian forces also kept up air and artillery bombardments of Grozny -- the only rebel-controlled town in Chechnya's north -- as a major offensive to take the city entered a second week. Russian commanders said their forces fought off an overnight rebel attack on federal artillery positions northwest of Grozny, on the Tersky Heights.
Russian commanders claimed their ground forces were making progress in Grozny, but the federal forces still appeared to be far from taking the city center from rebel fighters in heavily fortified positions.
Russian media reported a chlorine cloud over Grozny on Sunday, and the military accused rebels of using chemical bombs. Both sides have repeatedly accused the other of using chemical weapons during this war, but the claims have not been verified.
Military doctor Oleg Zayev said on Russia's ORT television Sunday that he sees dozens of wounded troops daily from in and around Grozny. The military has been tight-lipped about casualty figures, especially as the war drags on. Both the Russians and the Chechens exaggerate enemy losses and play down their own.
Russian troops entered Chechnya in September after Chechen-based militants invaded a neighboring region and were blamed for apartment bombings elsewhere in Russia. Russians terrified of the kidnappings and other violence that has plagued the Caucasus region in recent years largely support the war.
A 49-year-old woman held captive for three months in Chechnya escaped and walked for four nights to reach the border with the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia on Saturday night, ITAR-Tass reported Sunday.