Russians claim control of Grozny suburb

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The Independent Online

Russian forces claimed to have captured a suburb of Grozny on Monday, and federal commanders ordered a nearby town to raise a Russian flag or face an onslaught by government forces.

Russian forces claimed to have captured a suburb of Grozny on Monday, and federal commanders ordered a nearby town to raise a Russian flag or face an onslaught by government forces.

The Russians have temporarily eased up on their bombing campaign on the Chechen capital, where thousands of civilians remain trapped. But they were pressing their offensive in towns and villages to the south and east of the capital.

Russian artillery on Monday shelled some areas on the outskirts of Grozny and settlements to the south of the capital. Associated Press reporters on the edge of Grozny saw no sign of Russian air attacks Monday on the capital.

The Russian military said it had advanced in the Khankala area on the eastern outskirts of Grozny and claimed to have seized the city's airport, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Bulgakov, told the ITAR-Tass news agency. But Chechen forces said they were still fighting in the area and there was no independent confirmation of the Russian claim.

Even if they have control of the airport, the fighting in surrounding areas makes it too dangerous to use. It would not be a major loss for the Chechens, who have no aircraft.

In Moscow, Nikolai Koshman, Russia's chief official for Chechnya, claimed the rebel capital would be captured in a week to 10 days.

"Radical steps will be taken to stabilize the situation in the republic's social sphere," Koshman said following a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

In another development, Russia's parliament voted 332-4 on Monday to grant a limited amnesty to Chechen militants and Russian soldiers who committed lesser offenses.

But the amnesty did not apply to anyone who committed murders, abductions and other serious crimes, and it appeared it would not apply to top rebel leaders. To qualify for the amnesty, rebels have until Feb. 1 to stop fighting.

Meanwhile, a Russian Su-25 warplane went down which said the crash may have been caused by a "technical malfunction."

Russian planes and helicopter gunships have flown hundreds of missions over Chechnya, with only a few aircraft lost to rebel groundfire.

Russian aircraft flew 64 sorties on Sunday, though Grozny was not bombed, the military said. The aircraft focused on the Argun Gorge, an area south of the capital where rebels have been seeking refuge.

The Russian forces also have surrounded Shali, which is about 20 kilometers (13 miles) southeast of Grozny, and is the only sizable town the rebels still hold aside from the capital itself.

Lt. Gen. Gennady Troshev said residents must persuade the rebels to leave, and the red, white and blue Russian flag must be raised over Shali by Monday, or else the Russians would unleash a fresh offensive.

"I will give you the Russian flag and you must put it up in the town, or we will start military operations, and those who remain will be destroyed," Troshev said, according to witnesses.

"In any case, Shali will be cleaned out," said Troshev, the commander of the Russian forces in eastern Chechnya. "We don't want more blood spilled, but war is war."

There were no reports Monday afternoon that a Russian flag had been put up in Shali, but the Russians had not begun attacking the city either.

Over the weekend, Russia backed off from a threat to launch an all-out assault on Grozny, and instead opened a second corridor for civilians to flee the besieged capital.

However, few residents took up the Russian offer, and 15,000 to 40,000 civilians are believed to be living in basements and underground shelters.

Meanwhile, Putin, speaking in parliament, claimed that the Chechen militants had "recently executed 68 peaceful villagers" who had urged the rebels to leave the village they were in. Putin did not name the village or give additional details.

Witnesses said a Russian armored personnel carrier fired on three cars filled with refugees Sunday night on the outskirts of Grozny, killing 11 people, including three children. The witnesses asked not to be identified by name.

Russian forces entered Chechnya in September, pursuing militants who had invaded the neighbouring Russian region of Dagestan a month earlier. The militants are also blamed for a series of apartment building bombings that killed some 300 people in Moscow and two other Russian cities.

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