Russia intensifies air campaign against militants in Chechnya

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The Independent Online

Russian jets flew 100 combat missions in Chechnya, targeting Grozny and outlying regions in the heaviest bombing since federal forces attacked the breakaway region, officials said Thursday.

Russian jets flew 100 combat missions in Chechnya, targeting Grozny and outlying regions in the heaviest bombing since federal forces attacked the breakaway region, officials said Thursday.

The air force said the missions were mounted over the past 24 hours, and claimed it had used precision-guided bombs to kill 250 Islamic militants and destroy several armored vehicles, bridges and arms depots.

But Chechen leaders claimed that the Russian attacks, which hit downtown Grozny, its outskirts and villages to the east and south, killed 116 people, mostly civilians. The figure could not be confirmed.

Scores of civilians, including women and children, have been killed by Russian attacks on Grozny and other Chechen towns in recent weeks, according to independent observers.

As the air attacks continued, Russian troops on Thursday forced their way into the outskirts of Chechnya's second-largest city, Gudermes, said Defense Ministry spokesman Gennady Alyokhin.

Gudermes is 35 kilometers (21 miles) east of Grozny and sits along a strategic highway leading east to the republic of Dagestan. The Russians had also taken six settlements around Gudermes, strengthening their hold on the east of the republic.

Russian forces claimed that the militants had mostly left Gudermes for Grozny and other strongholds, but the report could not be confirmed.

Russian ground forces continued Thursday to shell rebel positions in and around Grozny. The Russian army holds positions on the edge of the Chechen capital.

The Interfax news agency quoted unidentified Russian officials as saying the intensified bombing raids were part of the second phase in the campaign to wipe out the militants. The sources said Russia wants to inflict heavy damages on the Chechen forces before sending in ground troops.

When Russia began the operation in September, it took the plains of the northern third of the republic easily. But it has been more cautious about proceeding further south, where the terrain is more hilly and better protects the militants.

It also does not want a repeat of the 1994-96 Chechen War, when young Russian troops were slaughtered in street fighting by a lightly armed guerrilla force.

The Russians say they want to crush Islamic militants who twice attacked Dagestan in August and September and are accused of carrying out a series of deadly apartment bombings in Russia in September.

But the campaign appears increasingly aimed at restoring Russian rule over Chechnya. Chechen fighters not allied with the militants are now fighting with them against the Russians.

Chechen commanders appeared confident about defending the capital, saying they have built concrete bunkers and other sturdy defenses.

Russia has sent mixed messages over whether it will try to take Grozny, with senior commanders saying their forces will destroy Chechen forces before occupying the city.

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