Chechens trapped as Russians cut off escape

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Russian troops have cut the last road out of Chechnya, blocking the escape route forrefugees trying to leave the country. Some 160,000 refugees have already fled to escape Russian bombardment.

Russian troops have cut the last road out of Chechnya, blocking the escape route forrefugees trying to leave the country. Some 160,000 refugees have already fled to escape Russian bombardment.

The narrow road leading to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia is packed with cars, which are not being allowed to pass a Russian checkpoint. "We are standing here because we know the area is full of Chechen fighters, and they could be passing themselves off as refugees," said a Russian soldier at a checkpoint.

Last week's missile attack on the food market in Grozny, the Chechen capital, which killed 163 and wounded wounded 380 people, has sparked a new exodus of refugees. "We wanted to get everything we could out of there, since we now know for sure the war isn't going to end soon," said Zainab, a woman trying to flee with her family.

The Russian forces are continuing to edge forward into Chechnya, moving cautiously to avoid Chechen counter-attacks. Their advance units are now eight miles from Grozny, but it is not clear yet if they will assault the city. Russia insists that it did not launch the missiles which hit the market. General Valery Manilov, the deputy chief of staff, said that ammunition exploded "after a clash between two bandit formations".

President Ruslan Aushev of Ingushetia has appealed to Russia to reopen the corridor for refugees saying: "They are mostly women and children and old people. The bandits are walking around as they please and the peaceful population are suffering most."

The carnage in Grozny has led to Western states expressing real concern about events in Chechnya. Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, said what had happened was "deplorable and and ominous". A White House spokesman said: "We reiterated our concern over Russian actions, stressing that they do not repeat past mistakes, and urged a political solution."

Meanwhile the Kremlin has denied that President Boris Yeltsin is an "on-again, off-again" leader as the US Vice President, Al Gore, said in an interview at the weekend. Mr Gore said: "Yeltsin's episodic approach to the presidency has not helped their ability to get on top of all these problems."

A spokesman for the Kremlin said Mr Yeltsin "feels well and, most importantly, continues to take the most important decisions being made today".

There is little evidence of serious ground fighting though the Chechens reported overnight that four people had been killed and 20 injured by Russian artillery at Vedeno, a town in eastern Chechnya. Russian artillery is also bombarding Bamut, a hamlet close to the border with Ingushetia.

Russian military and political leaders give the impression of wanting to take over the whole of Chechnya, but without heavy casualties. Some 6,000 Russian soldiers were killed in the last war in 1994-96.

The Chechens are also hardening their position. Vakha Arsanov, the Chechen Vice-President, said that the country's state defence committee had decided to forbid "Chechen leaders from conducting negotiations or getting in touch with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin". Mr Arsanov said the Chechens would only talk with Russia on neutral ground under the auspices of the UN or some other international body, which would then oversee the implementation of any agreement reached. Russian forces would also have to end the war and return to their original positions.

The main Chechen forces, which Russia says number 20,000, have yet to be committed, though there has been continuous skirmishing. It is doubtful if Russia has the military strength in the north Caucasus at the moment to take and hold the whole of Chechnya. International relief agencies say that Chechen men have often dropped off their families in refugee camps before returning to Chechnya. The Russian armed forces are in the middle of a reorganisation but probably have 500,000 men in combat formations.

The Chechens say they have shot down three more Russian aircraft, but this is denied by the Russian airforce. The Chechens have clearly obtained Russian Igla hand-held anti-aircraft missiles since they shot down two Russian aircraft a fortnight ago. These missiles normally have a device to prevent Russian soldiers shooting down their own planes but the Chechens may have rewired them.