Russian warplanes kill dozens of villagers

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The Independent Online

HOLDING UP a jagged fragment of a Russian bomb Tamousa Yagouva, a Chechen woman in a flowery red and blue dress, said: "They took this out of my mother's stomach. Nobody knows if she will live or die. Damn Yeltsin. He is turning us all into terrorists."

HOLDING UP a jagged fragment of a Russian bomb Tamousa Yagouva, a Chechen woman in a flowery red and blue dress, said: "They took this out of my mother's stomach. Nobody knows if she will live or die. Damn Yeltsin. He is turning us all into terrorists."

Russian planes dropped 30 bombs on Elistanzhi, a pretty Chechen village surrounded by forests in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, at noon last Thursday. The explosions tore apart the fragile wood and brick houses, ripped the roof off the school and killed 35.

Hoj Ahmed, who taught sports at the school for two years, said: "It's as if the Russians were saying to us: 'Why don't you fight?' After all they attacked us when all we do is herd our cattle. Nobody wants a war here. But if the Russians come to the village we might as well die fighting."

Villagers were bitter that Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, had said that no Russian planes had flown on the day Elistanzhi was attacked."Yeltsin and Putin are scoundrels," said Mrs Yagouva. "I want to take an assault rifle and fight myself. I want to see all Russia in flames."

Mr Ahmed added: "A friend of mine brought his children from Grozny thinking they would be safer here, but they were killed in the raid."

The attacks were stepped up over the weekend which saw some of the fiercest bombing yet. In theory the raids are targeted on "terrorist" bases of Chechen leaders blamed by Russia for the bomb attacks which killed 300 people in apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere. In practice, since the Chechen guerrillas do not have fixed bases, this means the bombing of any area where they are known to have once been present. There were no signs of any military installations in Elistanzhi.

Elsewhere in Chechnya the bombing is aimed at the remains of the civilian infrastructure which escaped destruction in the war of 1994-96. "Some 60-70 per cent of the bridges have been destroyed," said Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen President who last night outlined a peace plan offering a crackdown on renegade warlords.

Between the Chechen capital, Grozny, and the Caucasus mountains plumes of blue smoke rise from the remaining refineries, among the first casualties of the air assault. Russia has stopped supplying electricity and gas and has destroyed Chechen generators.

In his presidential palace in Grozny, the only building reconstructed since the last war, which left the city a sea of ruins, President Maskhadov agreed yesterday that his country was being destroyed. He said: "They are blockading us and trying to provoke starvation. But it is stupid to think that an armed people will do nothing in response to this."

He denied that he wouldorder attacks into Russia, but also, in a veiled threat, suggested that at a certain moment those who might launch such attacks would become impossible to control. Grozny is largely deserted. Over 130,000 refugees have fled, mostly into neighbouring Ingushetia.

At the checkpoint on the border there was a queue of refugees three kilometres long. In the far distance there was the rumble of Russian artillery firing along the Terek River on the other side of a low range of hills to the north.

President Maskhadov has seemed almost desperate to talk to the Russian leadership in Moscow, but said he has seen all his efforts rebuffed. He denied that Chechens were behind the destruction of the apartment buildings in Moscow. He claimed the attacks were part of the struggle in Russia over the succession to President Boris Yeltsin. He said: "They blow up apartments and attribute it to us. Only the Russian secret service could do a thing like that."

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