200,000 flee as Russian troops bombard Grozny

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The Independent Online
RUSSIAN FORCES showered Chechen cities and towns with bombs and shells yesterday, forcing civilians to flee the war-shattered republic by the thousands. More than 200,000 people have now escaped into the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, according to authorities there.

One Interfax news agency correspondent said the Russian forces had advanced on the Tersk ridge that overlooks Grozny, and were shelling the outskirts of the Chechen capital from there. The Russian military said warplanes flew more than 70 sorties in Chechnya over the past 24 hours.

Russia insists that its forces are avoiding civilian casualties, but Chechen officials claim thousands have been killed since air strikes began in early September. Adlan Betmirzaev, who left Grozny yesterday, said: "The bombing and shelling are very heavy. They are hitting all areas of the city. On the road out I passed a burnt-out truck in which 18 people were killed. There is a queue three kilometres long of people trying to cross the border."

"Grozny is deserted," said Asludin Baskhanov, who had just crossed the border into Ingushetia. "It is a dead city." Other refugees disagree, saying that amid the ruins thousands of people are still huddled in basements, unable to flee because they are frightened of being bombed on the roads or have no money for transport.

People who have escaped from Grozny say bitterly that almost all casualties are civilians. Mr Baskhanov complained that earlier missile attacks targeted the house of Shamil Basayev, a Chechen militia leader, close "to where I lived, but they only killed my sister-in-law and two other people".

Russia's strategy has been to use its firepower but not commit ground troops in order to avoid suffering casualties. A Chechen journalist, whose parents are trapped in Grozny, said yesterday that he thought President Aslan Maskhadov would "fight for the capital to cause the Russian army losses, but he has not concentrated all his forces there to avoid losing men from air attack. His fighters are distributed all over Chechnya."

Grozny was never rebuilt after the 1994-96 war and almost all its public buildings and apartment blocks are in ruins. Few shops reopened and most food was sold from small booths in street markets. Its population before the present war is impossible to estimate but did not exceed 200,000.

Meanwhile, Chechen military headquarters announced that the rebels had abandoned their western stronghold of Bamut, after the Russians mounted heavy bombing and artillery assaults. They said that 28 of their fighters had been killed and 26 wounded in fierce fighting around the nearby villages of Samashki, Zakan-Yurt and Alkhan-kala. The Chechens held the hamlet of Bamut for a year against the Russians during the last war.

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