Panic as shells sweep suburbs of Grozny

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The Independent Online
The curtain of Russian artillery and mortar fire swept beyond the southern edge of Grozny yesterday as inhabitants of the southern suburbs, some near to panic, scrambled to leave.

On Wednesday night, the Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, said the Russian armed forces' mission was over and responsibility was to be handed over to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. But yesterday the armed forces were still very much in evidence.

At about 10.15am a heavy, rumbling artillery barrage began which lasted for most of the day. Mortar bombs rained down on the roads and some people said they appeared to be following moving vehicles. A five-storey block of flats in Chernorechye suburb received a direct hit. A chemical factory in the Kirovskaya district was ablaze, sending up a thick pall of black smoke.

The Russian Air Force was also active on the clearest day for a fortnight. At Alkun in neighbouring Ingushetia, the Russians bombed one of their own border guard posts, wounding one soldier.

It is likely the Russians have suffered many casualties from "friendly fire" in the conflict.

Early in the morning, Hind helicopter gunships began to make low level passes over the roads leading to Grozny. Fifteen miles west of the city, a Sukhoi-27 jet headed straight for our car and roared overhead, belching black exhaust, just above tree top height.

It was on a photo-reconnaissance mission to where a key bridge had been blown by the anti-Dudayev opposition on Monday night. The Chechens were attempting to build a temporary bridge 100 yards south of it, using concrete pipes laid side by side which a bulldozer was covering with earth.

Meanwhile, traffic was trying to ford the fast, icy river and at one point five Ladas were stuck in the torrent, while a tractor slithered about the riverbank trying to drag them out. The Su-27 must have got some useful photographs.

Trucks full of refugees and buses, one of which had most of its windows shot out, headed south out of the city. At the market in Alkhan Yurt, the first distinct settlement outside Grozny, a woman - a Russian - pleaded with us to take her and two others further out of the city.

The Chechen militias were checking the refugees, screening for infiltrators. If the Russian Interior Ministry troops based at Samashki let them pass, most were heading for Ingushetia.

Yesterday the Ingush Minister for Civil Defence and Emergency Situations, Khamzat Bekov, said 58,000 refugees were already registered in Ingushetia, and their numbers were expected to swell to 100,000. About 7,000 to 8,000 people are also missing, Mr Bekov said.

Outside his office, Magomed Meriev's mother was waiting to see the minister about her 18-year-old son who had been seized by Russian soldiers in mid-January. Magomed Balayev's wife was searching for news of her 54-year-old husband who had gone into Grozny to work in one of the oil factories on 10 December, never to be heard from again.

A convoy left the ministry's headquarters in Sleptsovsk, 40 miles west of the centre of Grozny, yesterday morning, for the western area of the city which is under Russian control, to recover bodies. "There are hundreds there - maybe thousands," Mr Bekov said. "They're in the industrial area" - just north of Chernorechye, which was being blasted to pieces as he spoke. Similar convoys would run most days from now on, he added.

The minister said the Russian-held part of the city was under control of the armed forces or the Interior Ministry, depending on which forces were where. As for the return to normality implied in the Defence Minister, Mr Grachev's words, there was no sign. "I've no idea when we might get a civil government back there," Mr Bekov said.