Russia keeps up barrage against Chechen towns

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Chechen authorities had the grim task today of searching for the dead and wounded after hundreds of rockets screamed into the capital of breakaway Chechnya, slamming Grozny in the fiercest assault of Russia's offensives.

Chechen authorities had the grim task today of searching for the dead and wounded after hundreds of rockets screamed into the capital of breakaway Chechnya, slamming Grozny in the fiercest assault of Russia's offensives.

Russian forces also shelled the nearby city of Urus-Martan all night, keeping up a punishing assault that is intended to drive rebels out and open a key route to Grozny from the southwest. There were also clashes Thursday night between Russian troops and Chechen militants near Gekhi, a village on the outskirts of Urus-Martan.

Foggy weather and poor visibility has cut Russian airstrikes against Grozny in recent days, and the capital had been relatively quiet. However, on Thursday night Russian units in Alkhan-Yurt, 8 kilometers (5 miles) southwest of Grozny, unleashed four barrages of 100 rockets toward the city. Similar firing came from another direction.

There was no immediate information on casualties or damage in war-ravaged Grozny, where terrified residents have been huddling in frigid basements for weeks. In addition to fighters, mostly elderly and infirm people have remained in the capital while thousands of others have fled.

Russian jets and combat helicopters flew about 100 missions on Thursday, including strikes against Grozny and Urus-Martan, the Russian military said. The Interfax news agency, citing military headquarters, said that targets included the Chechen security ministry in Grozny, a communications center, a Chechen field commander's headquarters and a truck repair plant. Helicopters also damaged six bridges and created six blockages in the southern mountains, Interfax said.

Russia launched its offensive against Chechnya in September with the stated aim of wiping out Islamic rebels who twice invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan this summer. The rebels are also blamed in apartment bombings that killed 300 people in several Russian cities in September.

The international community has put increasing pressure on Russia to halt the offensive, focusing its complaints on widespread civilian casualties and on the plight of the more than 220,000 refugees who have fled the fighting.

Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is heading a political movement competing in next month's Russian parliamentary elections, said that all the refugees would be back in Chechnya by February.

He said that 25,000 will have returned by Dec. 1, and 100,000 more by Dec. 18, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported Friday.

About 17,000 Chechens who took refuge in the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia after the war began have by now returned to Chechnya, and some 200,000 more are living in the Russian-controlled north of the separatist region, ITAR-Tass said.

Shoigu also lashed out at the few Russian politicians who have even mildly criticized the Russian campaign in Chechnya.

"To criticize the federal troops' actions in Chechnya means to betray the interests of the country and the Russian army," ITAR-Tass quoted him as saying Thursday.

"Russia's integrity is being decided there and it is a crime to speculate on this situation in order to boost one's rating, to beat somebody else during the elections."

The Russian President Boris Yeltsin, sidelined by a viral infection and acute bronchitis, will need at least a week to recover and was resting Friday at his country residence, the Kremlin said.

Whenever Yeltsin falls sick, rumors inevitably begin circulating that the Russian leader is seriously ill, and the latest episode was no exception.

But Yeltsin's doctors sent him home Thursday afternoon after treating him briefly at the Central Clinical Hospital. And the president's press service said Friday morning that Yeltsin was recuperating at Gorky-9, his secluded residence in the woods west of the capital.

"No special courses of treatment or medication were prescribed," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin, according to the Interfax news agency.

Thursday was the 10th time the Kremlin has announced a Yeltsin illness since he was re-elected in 1996. Although some of the illnesses have been severe - including a heart condition that required quintuple-bypass surgery in late 1996 - the doctors' decision to send him home suggested the current malady is relatively mild.

However, the illness was serious enough that Yeltsin has canceled coming meetings with foreign leaders, including Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who was to come to Moscow on Friday to sign a controversial union treaty between Russia and Belarus.

The president doesn't plan to meet foreign visitors until Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma comes Dec. 6, Interfax reported, citing Kremlin sources.

Yeltsin's deputy chief of staff, Igor Shabdurasulov, said full recuperation would take "from a week to two," Interfax reported Thursday.

Yeltsin, 68, has frequently suffered from respiratory infections, particularly in the winter. He has also suffered from a bleeding ulcer, double pneumonia and unstable blood pressure. He came down with bronchitis in October 1998 and had to cut short a trip to Kazakstan.

The president was hospitalized briefly last month with the flu and a fever.