Russian planes attack Chechen refugee convoy

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The Independent Online

Chechen refugees said yesterday that they saw Russian aircraft bomb a convoy of people trying to escape the rebel region. The reports were unconfirmed, but in Grozny, the capital, the Chechen Deputy Prime Minister, Kazbek Makhashev, also spoke of an attack on a convoy of refugees heading towards Ingushetia.

Chechen refugees said yesterday that they saw Russian aircraft bomb a convoy of people trying to escape the rebel region. The reports were unconfirmed, but in Grozny, the capital, the Chechen Deputy Prime Minister, Kazbek Makhashev, also spoke of an attack on a convoy of refugees heading towards Ingushetia.

"There were many dead, many wounded," one woman, still in a state of shock, said after Russian troops had allowed her and a small group of mostly wounded refugees to enter the neighbouring province of Ingushetia. Russia was expected to ease border restrictions with Ingushetia on Friday but did not.

Alexei Volkov, a Russian trader, was lying in a hospital just across the Chechen border, with shrapnel embedded in his chest. Mr Volkov and Ruslan Daniyev, a Chechen fireman, are almost the only people to escape from Chechnya since the Russian army sealed the roads out of the republic a week ago. Earlier this month Mr Volkov, seeing pictures of Chechnya being bombed, became worried about his friend Mr Daniyev and his family. He decided to drive to Chechnya to see if he could help them.

On 19 October Mr Volkov and Mr Daniyev, along with other villagers, were out gathering firewood when an SU-24 Russian attack aircraft appeared and fired a rocket. Both men were badly wounded. Another villager was killed. A farmer with a tractor took them to hospital in the nearby town of Urus-Martan. Mr Volkov had pieces of shrapnel in his lungs and liver. Mr Daniyev's left leg was shattered, and he was wounded in the back and stomach.

Mr Volkov says: "It was dangerous to stay in Urus-Martan, as the bombing had started there, too." On 23 October they were put in an ambulance to take them to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia.

They were able to pass the first Russian checkpoint when they showed Mr Volkov's Russian passport. At a second checkpoint the commander refused to let them through. But one of the Russian soldiers on duty said: "Wait until our commander goes away and we will let you through." They waited an hour and a half until the commander's helicopter took off, and the soldiers let the ambulance leave Chechnya.

The border was meant to reopen yesterday, but on the main road between Ingushetia and Chechnya, about 1,000 Chechens waited vainly in the rain to collect relatives. A line of 17 heavily armed soldiers blocked the road ahead. Tanks were dug in, in nearby fields.

At one point a Russian lieutenant shouted at us: "I warn you to get the hell out of the way, because they will start shooting soon."

In a nearby field an army command vehicle with a loudspeaker played a recorded message: "We cannot let you through. The government of Ingushetia is to blame. Go home. The fields to the left and right of the road are mined."

Any doubts about Russian intentions were removed with the arrival of General Vladimir Shamanov, commander of the Russian forces in west Chechnya. After berating the Chechens for blowing up buildings in Russia, he said: "The road will not be opened for two days."

The reason for the delay is not entirely clear. Vadim Koventsov, the local deputy minister for emergency situations, said he was worried that there would be bloody confrontations between the Russian soldiers and Chechens trying to go home to search for relatives. He did not expect the border to open soon.

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