60 dead as Russian missiles hit Grozny

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The Independent Online

Rockets killed at least 60 people and wounded 150 in the Chechen capital of Grozny yesterday, in the worst single incident since Russian forces entered Chechnya last month.

Rockets killed at least 60 people and wounded 150 in the Chechen capital of Grozny yesterday, in the worst single incident since Russian forces entered Chechnya last month.

Five ground-to-ground Russian Scud missiles hit the central market place and other targets in the early evening, said Mumadi Saidayev, chief of operations of the Chechen armed forces. The market was littered with bodies after the rockets exploded amid the stalls, which were crowded with shoppers.

"Three rockets hit the central market," said a Reuters reporter who was 50 yards from an explosion yesterday. "We were at the central city hospital. It was packed with corpses - at least 30. There are so many corpses and injured. Every minute they bring in more."

Magomed Magomadov, a senior Chechen government official, said that 118 people had been killed and between 300 people and 400 people injured. Many of the injured were in critical condition and not expected to live, he said. There was no independent confirmation of the casualty toll.

Hundreds of terrified peopleran for cover as the rockets exploded in the market. Surrounding streets were jammed with survivors and others trying to escape. Some onlookers tried to help the wounded as they staggered away from the devastated area. "It was dark and then all of a sudden, the place was illuminated and something was sparkling in the air. Then we heard the explosions," said Umar Madayev, who was near by when the missiles landed.

Grozny's already overcrowded and poorly equipped hospitals were packed with casualties. A handful of doctors, working under kerosene lamps because there was no electricity, operated on some of the injured. They were further hampered by acute shortages of vital drugs for treatment.

The wounded lay in pools of blood in the dirty, dark corridors of the central hospital, where there were no beds for them.

The Russian Defence Ministry at first denied having fired the missiles to the Interfax news agency, but later declined comment.

In recent weeks Moscow has denied hitting civilian targets despite evidence that a Russian tank-round killed 40 people on a bus, and that 35 people died when Russian aircraft dropped bombs on the village of Elistanzhi.

In addition to those who died in the market place, Chechen officials say that another 13 people were killed as they prayed in a mosque in the Kalinin district of Grozny. A maternity hospital was also reportedly hit.

The rocket attacks will make it difficult for Moscow to maintain that the present military campaign aims to spare Chechen civilians, unlike the 1994-96 war when at least 80,000 people died in the fighting.

Russian forces, which easily captured the northern third of Chechnya, are edging towards Grozny, but Russian commanders have given contradictory signals about attacking the city. Asked if he would storm it, Igor Sergeyev, the Russian Defence Minister, said yesterday: "Where have you got the idea of Grozny? Who is going to storm it?"

Grozny lies on a plain south of a low range of hills and Russian forces are massing on the other side of the range. Some troops are reportedly less than eight miles outside the capital, and Chechen officials have said that some Russian soldiers had been spotted even closer.

The Russian army suffered heavy losses when it took the city in 1995 and was badly defeated when the Chechens recaptured it the following year.

Most of the city is still in ruins. There is no electricity and little clean water. Few shops are open and most food is sold from small booths like those hit by a rocket yesterday. Many of the inhabitants who had returned have now fled to neighbouring republics.

Russia sent troops into Chechnya last month after weeks of air strikes to eliminate Islamic militants who invaded neighbouring Dagestan in the summer.

The militants are also blamed for a series of explosions in Russian apartment blocks that killed some 300 people last month.