Russia continues pounding Chechen targets

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The Independent Online

Russia unleashed a new wave of air and artillery strikes against militants in breakaway Chechnya on Friday, underlining its rejection of Western calls for a peaceful solution.

Russia unleashed a new wave of air and artillery strikes against militants in breakaway Chechnya on Friday, underlining its rejection of Western calls for a peaceful solution.

Jets continued bombing the capital Grozny and Chechnya's second-largest city Gudermes, as well as several villages. Casualty figures were not available for the latest fighting.

Russian troops had Gudermes cut off from the north and east, but believed there were still about 200 militants in the city, said Defense Ministry spokesman Gennady Alyokhin.

The British Embassy said Friday that it was awaiting word from Russian officials on the fate of two Western journalists who were arrested Thursday along the border between the Russian region of Ingushetia and Chechnya.

Times of London reporter Anthony Lloyd of Britain and freelance photographer Tyler Hicks, a U.S. citizen, were arrested by Russian police as they tried to cross the border. The ITAR-Tass news agency said they were arrested for not having press accreditation cards.

In Moscow, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott urged Russia to turn from military force to dialogue in Chechnya and avoid civilian casualties. In talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Talbott said he had conveyed President Clinton's concern about the situation.

"We understand that Russia has come up against a very dangerous threat of extremism and terrorism," which gives Russia the "right and duty to protect the state and its citizens," Talbott said, according to Russian news reports.

At the same time, he added, the United States hopes that Russia will "turn to political levers as soon as possible."

But Russian officials repeated that they would not back down in their effort to crush the militants, who twice invaded Russia this summer and have been blamed for four deadly apartment bombings, two in Moscow and two in southern Russia.

"We have come to never go away," Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Thursday during a visit to troops in Chechnya, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Russian Col. Gen. Valery Manilov, first deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces, said from New York that "any talks with terrorists and killers are out of the question," according to ITAR-Tass.

Unlike the 1994-96 Chechen war, in which Russian troops were driven out by Chechen militants, Russia's current campaign has widespread popular support in Russia.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov claimed his calls for peace talks with Russian President Boris Yeltsin were being ignored. "All my proposals to meet with Yeltsin are being ignored. My words never reach the president," he said Thursday.

Maskhadov said that 3,265 Chechens had been killed and more than 5,000 others wounded since Sept. 5, when Russia began launching airstrikes on Chechnya. He said Russian troops had destroyed 60 villages and Chechnya faced a humanitarian crisis.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday that 107 Russian servicemen had been killed in Chechnya since federal forces entered the territory in late September. The Russians claimed to have killed about 1,500 militants, but the Chechens have said their losses were much lower and the casualties among the Russians higher.

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