Grozny air raids kill 32

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DOZENS OF civilians were reported dead in the Chechen capital, Grozny, yesterday after Russian warplanes bombed the defenceless city for nearly two hours. After the aircraft had departed, shells continued to pour into Grozny from Russian forces camped on the outskirts.

Yesterday was warm and sunny in the Caucasian republic, and people had emerged on to the streets when the bombers arrived. After the attack, which concentrated on the centre and a residential area in the south-western outskirts, several residential buildings were left badly damaged. Pillows and mattresses blown outside by the blasts lay scattered in the streets.

Chechen officials said at least 32 people were killed in the raid, including eight children and 12 women.

"The Russians have adopted the tactic of killing from on high, from planes that cannot be hit, dropping bombs and rockets that kill civilians," the rebel commander Shamil Basayev told Reuters.

Sheltering as the bombs crashed down outside, he said that the attacks were only helping his forces. "Very few mujahideen [Muslim fighters] are dying. Each bombing adds dozens more people to our ranks," said Mr Basayev, one of the leading commanders of the Chechen Muslim rebels.

The Russian defence ministry would not confirm or deny yesterday's attack, but bombings of Grozny and other areas have forced almost 200,000 refugees to flee Chechnya so far. Most have escaped to the tiny and impoverished neighbouring republic of Ingushetia.

Yesterday thousands were still queuing to cross the border, some leaving Chechnya and others hoping to return home from Ingushetia to rescue relatives still in the conflict zone.

Russia's emergency situations minister, Sergei Shoigu, said Moscow had selected 17 towns and villages in Chechnya it considered safe for the refugees' return, and promised that federal forces would guarantee their safety. "The main part of the work will be to ensure people's return to towns liberated from terrorists," he said.

The Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, said Russia's military campaign was not about to let up, and called for the "bandit republic" to be "liquidated".

"If the so-called Chechen problem is not solved, if the hot-spot of banditry and terrorism in the rebel republic is not destroyed, then the Caucasus would be lost and a `sanitary zone' will have to be created around Moscow," he said in an interview with Kommersant newspaper.

Last week Tony Blair wrote to Mr Putin to express Britain's concern over the offensive. This message was reinforced yesterday by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, in a 45-minute telephone call to his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov.

Mr Cook expressed "grave concern" at the situation, the reports of civilian casualties and lack of a clear political strategy, said a Foreign Office spokesman. "He urged the Russian government to do more to avoid civilian casualties and keep open the Ingushetia-Chechnya border."