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Russia Fears A Terror Offensive

Despite massive firepower and an estimated nine-to-one advantage in troops, Russian efforts to over run the Chechen capital have stalled. And the cost is massive and mounting, reports CBS News Correspondent Allen Pizzey.

On Friday, Moscow said it was taking seriously a new threat by Chechen-based rebels to strike at Russian cities and had already ordered urgent measures to counter possible attacks.

Jordanian-born Khattab, one of the most prominent guerrilla leaders warned in an interview recorded on Wednesday that his people were ready to strike targets in Russia.

"The Mujahideen are ready not only to hit any city in Chechnya, but any city in Russia as well," a confident Khattab said, reclining on a black leather sofa.

Alexander Zdanovich, spokesman for the FSB domestic security service, told Russian television that his agency knew about plans by Chechen guerrillas to kill civilians indiscriminately inside Russia and that one powerful explosion had already been prevented in St. Petersburg.

"The threat of terrorist attacks is real," Zdanovich said, but he failed to blame Chechens for the St. Petersburg bomb attempt.

The new concerns come amid revelations by Russian military bureaucrats that casualties are more than three times the level previously admitted.

In another signal of its battlefield troubles, it took the Russian military days to recover the body of a general killed trying to rally reluctant troops for an assault charge.

Authorities only began to acknowledge the extent losses after an independent television station went undercover in a military mortuary and gathered evidence it said showed losses up to ten times those officially admitted.

And it's not just Russians who are suffering.

Thousands of civilian refugees are in danger of epidemics of tuberculosis and the flu. Their plight, and the savagery of the assault on the Chechen capital, has brought a barrage of international criticism down on the Russians.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in the region Thursday with Chechnya at the top of his agenda. The propaganda war has been going so badly that an official spin master had to be appointed to deal with it.

But no amount of public relations efforts can counter the growing evidence of troop losses, or ensure what acting President Vladimir Putin had hoped would be a victory he could claim as his own in time for elections in March.

Still, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev claimed that a stalled operation to take Grozny "is approaching a breakthrough," Interfax said. "Notwithstanding the losses among the storming groups in Grozny, the fighters' losses are far higher than ours."

Russian troops have been struggling to seize Grozny for one month and have concentrated for the past week on Minutka Square. Taking the square would give federal forces leverage to push rebels out of the city's center.

A Russian offiial said federal forces had pushed to within 250 yards of the square, but the claim could not be verified. Earlier in the week, officials said troops had been advanced to within 400 yards from the square.

©2000 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report