Refugees flee bombs as Russia gears up for war

RUSSIA SEEMED to be sliding towards a full-scale war with breakaway Chechnya yesterday, as air force bombers pounded the capital, Grozny, while streams of refugees flooded into a neighbouring region.

Displaying satellite pictures, the military in Moscow insisted it was doing no more than Nato did in Yugoslavia, pinpointing targets of use to the enemy - in this case Islamic militants - and taking care not to hurt civilians. But the stream of at least 40,000 refugees into Ingushetia, a Muslim region to the west, suggested that life for civilians in Chechnya was becoming intolerable.

The air force sent waves of SU-24s and SU-25s to bomb bridges, an oil refinery, the television centre and other targets in and around Grozny yesterday, the fifth consecutive day of air raids. The Russians said they were aiming for "strategic objects" and the bases of guerrillas, who in the past two months have intruded into the eastern region of Dagestan and made terrorist attacks in Moscow and other cities.

Chechnya's moderate President, Aslan Maskhadov, said that 300 civilians had died since the start of the air raids. The claim could not be verified as few Russian reporters, let alone foreign correspondents, work in the region, which has become notorious for abductions.

In an interview with the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, President Maskhadov appealed for an urgent meeting with President Boris Yeltsin to prevent a repeat of the 1994-1996 war between Russia and Chechnya. "I need to save my people," he said, "and will do anything to prevent a new war. Only a meeting between presidents, face to face, without mediators, can help us find a way out of this crisis."

Russia's hawkish new Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, rejected the appeal, however. There would be no "meetings for meetings' sake", he said, and Russia was not about to "give the terrorists a chance to lick their wounds and attack us again". The politicians would convene only when it was "profitable for Russia".

If Moscow was beginning to sound like Nato addressing President Slobodan Milosevic during the Balkan War earlier this year, then the region of Ingushetia was starting to find itself in the same position as Macedonia, inundated with refugees. Thousands of Chech-en civilians, mainly women, children and elderly men, were walking over the border while more were waiting in traffic jams for permission to enter Ingushetia with their Lada cars, piled high with belongings.

Hard-pressed Ingush officials were hastily putting up tents in muddy fields and muttering about the inability of their impoverished region to cope. With winter approaching, there would be a "humanitarian disaster" if Moscow and international aid organisations did not step in to help, they said.

Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign minister and now President of Georgia, said his independent, mainly Orthodox Christian country could also be undermined by the crisis in Chechnya. "Our conscience will not let us refuse refugees," he told Russian television, " but we are concerned that Islamic fighters might try to infiltrate with them." Already, Russian bombs have hit Georgia by accident and Moscow has been obliged to apologise to Tbilisi.

Russian military leaders and politicians are refusing to rule out the option of again committing troops to Chechnya. Prime Minister Putin has said there will be no repeat of December 1994, when Moscow sent tanks and ill-prepared conscripts into Grozny, where they were subsequently routed by more mobile and highly motivated Chechen separatists. "We shall spare our men," he said at the weekend. "We will patiently and methodically destroy the militants from the air." But "highly trained troops" might be required for "mopping up operations".

Likewise the Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, who has vowed to see "every last bandit destroyed", hinted that a ground operation might be necessary. Moscow had "several options, which will be implemented depending on the situation that develops".

Opinion polls show that few Russians favour granting Chechnya independence and not many more want a new war. Nearly all would like to see the equivalent of the Berlin Wall being built around the region and a strict visa regime for visitors from Chechnya.

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