Russia denies firing on Red Cross convoy

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA HAS denied its jets fired rockets at a clearly marked Red Cross convoy, killing at least 25 civilians and wounding 70. The Russian army headquarters at Mozdok, west of Chechnya, said yesterday there had been no such attack and denounced the story as Chechen propaganda.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said two of its staff were among those killed when Russian aircraft fired at a five-vehicle convoy marked with the Red Cross emblem at Shami-Yurt, 12 miles west of Grozny. The Chechens say 50 people were killed.

An alternative Russian explanation is that its planes were fired on by men with sub-machine-guns in a convoy and they then attacked it from the air, destroying "two trucks with Islamic extremists".

The border between Chechnya and the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, to which 174,000 refugees have already fled to escape the Russian bombardment, remains closed.

Tarja Halonen, the Finnish Foreign Minister, visiting Ingushetia as leader of a European Union delegation, said a similar number of refugees was still trapped in Chechnya. She added: "Those seeking to leave the conflict zone should be allowed to do so."

In a hospital close to the Chechen border, injured people gave vivid testimony of indiscriminate Russian air and artillery attack.

Vera Yasenko, herself a Russian who had taught mathematics in a Chechen village for 23 years, was trapped in the ruins of a house that collapsed on her when it was hit by a shell. Ms Yasenko, her leg badly broken, was freed by her Chechen neighbours. She said: "It was thanks to those guys that my life was saved. They put me in a car and every so often they would push me and ask, `Are you still alive'. These are the same people that are called bandits?" She denied Chechen fighters were in her village.

The Russian army said yesterday that it had sealed off Gudermes, the second biggest Chechen city, and controlled the hills overlooking Grozny, the capital. There is also heavy bombing of roads leading south from Grozny towards the Caucasus mountains.

The Russians are avoiding casualties among its troops by heavy bombardment of Chechen settlements. It is not clear if an additional intention is to displace the Chechen population, more than one-third of whom have been driven from their homes, says the UN. Russian leaders say no Nato country has the right to criticise Russia over the war in Chechnya after the bombing of Serbia.

But Sergei Kovalyov, the Russian human rights activist and Duma member, has implied Russia wants to drive out the civilian population.

He said: "In Chechnya, Russia is using Nato's methods to achieve Milosevic's ends." In Grozny, already under heavy shell fire and without electricity or gas, witnesses say the city has largely run out of food.

t Chechen rebels have been in contact with Osama bin Laden, says Russia's domestic FSB intelligence service. Saudi-born Mr Bin Laden is suspected of organising last year's bombings of US embassies in Africa and other operations. The FSB says Mr Bin Laden promised to help Chechens secure aid from Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement.