Russians say Grozny will fall within days

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The Independent Online

Ground fighting intensified around the Chechen capital Grozny yesterday as Russian forces battled for control of strategic targets including a key military airport on the eastern outskirts of the city. The Russian forces also surrounded Shali, 12 miles southeast of Grozny, the only town of any importance the rebels still hold aside from the capital.

Ground fighting intensified around the Chechen capital Grozny yesterday as Russian forces battled for control of strategic targets including a key military airport on the eastern outskirts of the city. The Russian forces also surrounded Shali, 12 miles southeast of Grozny, the only town of any importance the rebels still hold aside from the capital.

Russian commanders gave residents an ultimatum which echoed that given to the people of Grozny: persuade the rebels to leave, and raise the red, white and blue Russian flag over Shali by the end of Monday or face extermination. "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," Lieutenant General Gennady Troshev told the town's leaders, according to Russian television.

Chechen forces meanwhile denied that the Russians had captured the military airport east of Grozny.

Witnesses reported a temporary overnight let-up in the air bombardment of the capital where thousands of civilians remain trapped. But Russian ground troops were still pounding towns and villages to the south and east. Chechen leaders and some Western reporters also insisted that the Russians were again bombing and shelling in areas leading to the mountains in the south where the Russians had promised to set up refugee evacuation corridors. Russian forces even briefly raided Minutka district in central Grozny according to one report from Chechen fighters.

In Moscow, Nikolai Koshman, Russia's chief official for Chechnya, predicted the capital would be captured within 10 days. The Russian government said an amnesty for Chechen rebels who wanted to turn their backs on the struggle by 1 February, voted by the Duma yesterday, would speed up the capitulation. Vladiir Putin the Prime Minister said. "Even the rumour about the amnesty has forced many fighters to lay down their arms."

Although the Russians appear to have drawn back from last week's shocking ultimatum to the citizens of Grozny to leave or face annihilation, the plight of people trapped in the capital is still of intense concern internationally. Tens of thousands are believed to be trapped many of them old and infirm and unable to leave their homes, let alone find their way through the potentially perilous evacuation routes earmarked by the Russians. Far from leaving, many hundreds of people are reported to be crossing back over the border from Ingushetia in the hope of bringing out their relatives.

Meanwhile, the Russian military said one of its pilots ejected over the rebel republic yesterday. A Chechen military commandant, Isa Munayev, claimed the pilot had been taken prisoner, the Interfax news agency reported. The military said the Su-25 plane was believed to have crashed because of technical reasons, but the Chechen chief of staff Mumadi Saidayev said it was shot down. He also claimed two Russian military helicopters were shot down as they tried to rescue the pilot.

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