Chechens flee in their thousands

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The Independent Online

of Agence France-Presse

Shali, Chechnya - Russian forces made crushing advances against Chechen separatists yesterday, uprooting the rebel military command from Shali, claiming capture of another Chechen stronghold and sparking an exodus of tens of thousands of terrified civilians who headed for the Caucasus mountains.

After 24 hours of intensive pounding by Russian artillery, Chechen commanders abandoned their headquarters in Shali, the self-declared separatist capital, during the night. Yesterday, the area was shredded by shrapnel and littered with broken glass. Abandoned dogs outnumbered people.

Within hours, Russia announced that its troops had taken Argun after the rebels abandoned the town, one of their last strongholds. General Anatoly Kulikov, commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, reported to Moscow that his forces had "liberated" Argun "with practically no destruction".The town of Gudermes was also increasingly isolated and under attack. A local man said that residential areas had been shelled for three days and that there were few signs of Chechen military resistance.

Thousands of civilians fled the plains of south-eastern Chechnya for the Caucasus, whose foothills begin less than six miles outside Shali and, as options ran out for the fighters who have resisted Russia's firepower for more than three months, they looked likely to do the same.

Chechen rebels said they would take the fight to the mountains, where Russian columns would find it impossible to take control. "They think that by taking control of Shali, Argun and Gudermes the war will be ended," said Ibrahim Magamodov, a fighter based in the town of Kurchaloi. "But it will go to the mountains - it will just be starting."

Aslambyek Bichyev, militia commander in Kurchaloi, said that 60,000 people had fled to the hills in the previous 24 hours. The Russians launched their latest onslaught on Tuesday, using aircraft and artillery to force the Chechens back from positions east and south-east of the capital, Grozny. They surrounded Argun, caught Shali in a pincher movement and cut off Gudermes.