The road from Grozny is littered with the debris of a human tragedy

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The Independent Online

Thousands of terrified refugees were clamouring to get out of Chechnya yesterday as the republic's leaders claimed that Russian aircraft were singling out civilian vehicles on the roads for attack.

Thousands of terrified refugees were clamouring to get out of Chechnya yesterday as the republic's leaders claimed that Russian aircraft were singling out civilian vehicles on the roads for attack.

"They bomb us, they kill us, they don't differentiate between militants and civilians," Zara Dudayev, a refugee who crossed the Russian-controlled border from Chechnya into the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, told reporters. She said her parents and brother had been killed in Grozny, the Chechen capital, by the Russian bombardment.

Refugees said they had seen many burned out civilian cars, hit by Russian jets, on the road from Grozny to the main border crossing at Kavkaz. Kazbek Makhashev, the Chechen Deputy Prime Minister, said "pilots seemed to get a special pleasure" in pursuing private cars.

Earlier this week, a woman died from heart failure and six others were injured when they were pushed up against Russian barbed wire by the force of a crowd as they tried to get back into Chechnya to rescue relatives.

One chink of light came yesterday when Valery Kuksa, the Minister for Emergency Services in Ingushetia, who is in overall charge of looking after refugees, told The Independent : "Today women and children were permitted to pass the checkpoint without being checked [by the Russian army]. All the rest are waiting in the queue and will stay on the road for the night." The opening of the checkpoint to women and children could not be confirmed independently.

Mr Kuksa said he had finally succeeded in recovering from the Russian army special mobile houses for refugees, which were donated by the city of Moscow to house Chechens but taken over by soldiers.

The mayor's office in the capital confirmed that 100 mobile homes for refugees had been put on a train for Ingushetia on 12 October. Once the homes reached Ingushetia, part of the gift was taken over by a Russian detachment near the village of Nestoroskaya, 10 miles from the main checkpoint. The Russian army said they were needed for special quarters during the winter.

Mr Kuksa said the mobile homes had been returned after he appealed to the Russian army commander. In Moscow, a spokesman for the Defence Ministry said: "I can't say anything about the seizure of the carriages [mobile homes], but maybe part of them were meant for the military and part for the refugees." But Anatoly Miranchik, of the mayor's office, said that the homes "were meant for refugee families".

The provision of extra housing for refugees is vital as the cold winter rain will soon turn to snow and another 100,000 refugees may soon arrive, according to President Ruslan Aushev, the Ingush leader.

In Ingushetia, any free space available is already full. Construction of a tent camp for 17,000 people close to the border was stopped when the Russian army said that soldiers were being targeted by snipers. Another 6,000 refugees are crammed into bunks on a train. Some of them say that they are fearful of remaining there because they suspect that the Russian authorities might attach a locomotive to it and deport them.

The confusion over the closure of the border, which leaves tens of thousands of refugees living under the threat of air and artillery attack, is exacerbated by competition between Russian authorities. Some of the soldiers manning the barbed wire barricade at Kavkaz were privately hired by the Justice Ministry, according to Russian press reports.

The extent of Chechen casualties within the war-torn republic is still unknown, but President Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, claims there are 3,600 dead.

The Russian army says 133 of its soldiers have been killed, but the respected Soldiers Mothers' Committee claims the real figure is four times as high.

Fighting is likely to intensify as Russian troops try to seal off Grozny, the Chechen capital, from the south as well as the city of Gudermes. Yesterday, General Igor Sergeyev, the Russian Defence Minister, said that Russian forces "are in control of seven out of 22 villages in the Gudermes region and nine out of 31 villages in the Grozny district".

Russian military experts say it is important for the Russian army to hold the area between Grozny, which is largely a bombed out ruin, and the guerrilla strongholds in the forested foothills of the Caucasus further south.

For the first time, the main Russian television stations have shown pictures of desperate refugees at the border, including the woman who died after being crushed by the crowd at Kavkaz. It is unclear at the moment if this will have any effect on Russian public opinion, which has so far been fully supportive of the military campaign.

Valentine Gefter, the executive director of the Institute of Human Rights in Moscow, said yesterday that he believed the pictures would have little impact.

"Viewers still have the idea that refugees are from a country which brought terrorism to Russia," he said, adding that only a long war or heavy Russian casualties would change public opinion. There is also little sign that Western pressure, such as it is, is having an effect. Animosity towards the West, which has been seen to give advice which has ruined the Russian economy, runs deep. Western concern for civilian casualties is also seen as hypocrisy after the air campaign against Serbia, Mr Gefter said.

Sergei Baburin, the deputy spokesman for the Duma, said that in Chechnya the West wanted "this gangrene to be eternal, this reservation of terrorists to exist permanently."

He added that Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, would "withstand the pressure because it is his only chance to be a fully fledged prime minister".

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