Russians close in on Chechen capital, refugees continue to flee

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Russian forces closed in around the Chechen capital Grozny today and searched for rebels, while fearful civilians kept up their exodus from the breakaway region.

Russian forces closed in around the Chechen capital Grozny today and searched for rebels, while fearful civilians kept up their exodus from the breakaway region.

The Federal Migration Service said Monday that 222,556 refugees had fled Chechnya since Russian airstrikes began in late August. More than 1,850 had left Chechnya over the past 24 hours, the Interior Ministry said Monday morning.

Weary-looking people, mostly women and children, piled out of pick-up trucks at the border with the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia, and began their trek to find shelter in tent camps or private homes.

It was the only one of five crossing points between Chechnya and the rest of Russia that was open Monday, the Emergency Situations Ministry said. The only other route out of Chechnya is south, across a snowy mountain range, into Georgia.

More than 21,790 people have returned to Chechnya, the migration service reported Monday, according to the Interfax news agency. Russian officials have been urging Chechens to return to the Russian-controlled northern part of Chechnya, promising that salaries and pensions will be paid and gas and other utilities restored.

Deputy Interior Minister Ivan Golubev said policemen had been brought from other regions of Russia to work in three Russian-controlled regions in Chechnya, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

"Since it is fairly difficult to judge the loyalty to (Russian) forces of those who stay in the liberated areas, district police stations at the initial stage have been formed of workers assigned from outside the boundaries of Chechnya," Golubev was quoted as saying.

He said that local police would gradually be integrated into the force.

Interior Troops and riot police continued house-to-house searches for militants in territory already controlled by Russian troops. Meanwhile, they were preparing for initial sweeps of the towns of Argun and Bamut, which Russian soldiers have surrounded, Interfax quoted Lt. Gen. Stanislav Kavun, deputy commander of the Russian Interior Troops, as saying Monday.

Russian forces control most of the approaches to Grozny, and military officials said Sunday that 5,000 to 6,000 rebels had barricaded themselves in the Chechen capital in anticipation of a Russian assault.

Grozny has been a key focus of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya. Russian aircraft and artillery have been pummeling the city and suspected rebel bases throughout the territory for weeks.

Warplanes flew 30 sorties over Chechnya on Sunday, and helicopters flew 36 missions over the past 24 hours, military officials said. No information was available about damage and casualties.

In a sign that the war could soon be concentrated in the mountainous south, where rebels are expected to hole up in the winter, the military announced that three Ka-50 Black Shark helicopters had been sent to the region. The gunships have high maneuverability.

Chechnya has been beyond Moscow's control since Russian forces withdrew at the end of a 1994-96 war. Moscow's latest campaign is ostensibly aimed at rooting out Islamic militants blamed for terrorist acts around Russia. Moscow insists it is targeting only rebel fighters, despite claims from human rights groups and Chechens that the civilian toll has been high.