Russians bomb mountains as rebels attack trains

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The Independent Online

Russian planes bombarded Chechnya's icy southern mountains yesterday as troops poured into the foothills to root out militant fighters.

Russian planes bombarded Chechnya's icy southern mountains yesterday as troops poured into the foothills to root out militant fighters.

Russia claims to control most of Chechnya, but rebels have attacked federal units and two military trains this week, demonstrating that they can still move around fairly easily.

Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen President, said that his forces were launching a guerrilla war throughout the area, including parts that Russia has occupied for months.

The Russians seized the capital, Grozny, last week, but will have a harder time preventing guerrilla raids and destroying rebel bases hidden in the mountains.

Trucks and armoured personnel carriers rumbled up muddy roads into the foothills, and troops were strengthening their hold on strategic heights near Duba-Yurt, which overlooks the Argun gorge. A steady stream of planes roared through the gorge, and jets and helicopter gunships bombarded the village of Yaryshmardy, about five miles south of Duba-Yurt. They made 160 bombing runs in 24 hours, the Interfax news agency said. Most targeted the Argun and Vedeno gorges, key channels for rebels and their supplies moving between the border with Georgia.

Heavy bombs have been used - most recently, 1.5 tonnes - indicating the difficulty that Russia is having in wiping out the estimated 7,000 rebels. Air force chief Colonel General Anatoly Kornukov said there was "no alternative, as it is very hard to get at rebels in the mountain caves and hideouts".

In Grozny, scattered clashes continued as Russian troops combed through mangled buildings and rotting basements to uncover any fighters left. Russians estimate that 150-200 rebels remain and 10,000 civilians. The city once had a population of about 400,000.

Residents said that troops were looting their homes under the pretext of searching for militants. "They call it mopping up," said Hamid Gukayev, 72. "They have cleaned out everything in my house: the carpets, kitchenware, warm underwear."

The international watchdog group Human Rights Watch said that it had confirmed that at least 38 civilians were executed by Russian soldiers in Grozny. They included nine members of one family. The body called on the acting President, Vladimir Putin, to investigate.

Russia sent troops into Chechnya in September after Chechen-based Islamic militants invaded neighbouringDagestan. It blames Chechen rebels for apartment bombings that killed about 300 people. (Associated Press)

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