Russia faces sanctions over Chechen blitz

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AN EXASPERATED West has, for the first time, threatened sanctions against Russia over its ultimatum to Chechen civilians besieged in the capital Grozny: leave by Saturday or die.

Fierce fighting raged across central Chechnya yesterday, as refugees fleeing Grozny warned that the city was full of sick and old people who were unable to escape, three days before Russia's threatened destruction of the city.

International condemnation mounted after Russia's ultimatum, which is likely to dominate the European summit in Helsinki on Friday.

The Russians said they had opened a safe corridor for civilians to flee Grozny, but fighter jets strafed and bombed the city yesterday, making it dangerous to move about. Inside Grozny, where there was no access to news about the ultimatum, there was no confirmation whether a safe corridor existed.

In London, Russia's ambassador to London, Yuri Fokine, was summoned to the Foreign Office to be told of Britain's dismay at the promised carpet bombing of the Chechen capital. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, warned that the European Union would review financial and technical assistance to Russia if it did not respect "basic humanitarian norms" in the war.

Similar criticism came from Paris, Rome and other capitals. By no co- incidence too, the International Monetary Fund is holding up, for "technical reasons" the release of a new pounds 400m ($640m) loan tranche to help shore up the battered Russian economy.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, dismissed President Clinton's protests and suggested that the US would do better to put pressure in Chechnya to give up terrorists.

The fighting was causing heavy civilian casualties. In Alkhan-Yurt, the scene of a battle last week, scores of bodies litter the streets. Most of the village was destroyed. Local people said that Russian soldiers, trying to flush out Chechen fighters, tossed grenades into the cellars of houses where civilians were hiding. In one case 13 out of 25 people in a basement were killed.

The war has escalated sharply as Russian troops engage in close contact fighting for the first time. The change in Russian tactics, and the threat to Grozny, suggested that the Russian leadership was desperate to win a quick victory.

The Liberal defence spokesman, Menzies Campbell, attacked the "mediaeval barbarism" of the Russian tactics, while President Clinton spoke of the "heavy price" Moscow would pay if it continued its brutal campaign. There were signs that Russian military commanders were taken aback by the international uproar over their threat to destroy Grozny. General Viktor Kazantsev, the commander of Russian forces in the north Caucasus, said it should not be reviewed as a final ultimatum.

In the last few days, Chechen guerrillas took 100 Russian prisoners and shot down a Russian helicopter in a battle in the town of Urus-Martan according to a Chechen eye witness. He said he saw rebel fighters execute captured Russian "contract" soldiers, who are paid extra money to fight and are not part of the regular Russian army. They have a well established reputation for looting and are detested by ordinary Chechens as mercenaries paid to kill them.

He said: "I spoke to Major Sergey Dimchenko of the 58th Army who was captured with about 100 of his men. The battle started on 5 December when the Russians advanced from the village of Gekhi towards Urus-Martan. Fighters let them get as close as possible and then outflanked them. I saw six or seven armoured vehicles knocked out."

The Russian army is having to fight hard for the heavily populated towns and villages in the central plain of Chechnya south of Grozny. Urus-Martan, a town of some 43,000 people, is under heavy artillery and air attacks.

Alkhan-Yurt and Urus-Martan are the two main strongholds of the Wahhabis, the Islamic group. Despite differences with the regular Chechen guerrillas the two groups are now fighting together.