Russia warns that it may launch a ground invasion of Chechnya

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THE RUSSIAN military warned yesterday that it may launch ground operations against Islamic militants in Chechnya as planes bombed the Chechen capital for a fourth day, pounding industrial and communications facilities.

Four Russian jets flew repeatedly over Grozny's southern Oktyabrsky district yesterday morning, firing rockets and dropping bombs, the Interfax news agency said. The district is the site of Chechnya's television broadcasting centre, which was destroyed on Saturday, as well as oil wells.

Witnesses said that over the past four days, Russian air raids have destroyed more than 100 oil pumps, reservoirs and small refineries in and around Grozny that are believed to be controlled by Chechen rebel field commanders. The oil was the basis of a profitable business providing low-grade gasoline to other Russian regions.

Russian planes also struck suspected rebel camps near Chechnya's border with Dagestan on Saturday, the ITAR-Tass news agency said, citing the provisional federal press centre in Dagestan.

The Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev said yesterday that he could not rule out ground operations in the breakaway republic.

"There are several variants of a plan for ground operations, which will be implemented depending on the situation that develops," Interfax quoted Mr Sergeyev as saying, while visiting soldiers recovering from Dagestan battle wounds in a Moscow military hospital. "The main aim of all the plans is to eliminate the bandits" and "to create a considerably deep security zone around Chechnya."

Russian military commanders appeared to be considering a major raid into Chechnya to put the militants on the defensive and stop their incursions in to surrounding Russian territory. While Russia has massed armoured forces on the Chechen borders, military analysts say the force is too small for a full-scale invasion.

The Russian military is short of everything from infantry to food and an invasion of Chechnya could risk a defeat of the kind it suffered during the 1994-96 war when it lost control of the region to a much smaller, poorly-armed guerrilla force.

None the less, Russian public opinion appears to favour tough action against Chechnya in the wake of a series of apartment building bombings in Russia during the past month that have been blamed on the Chechen militants.

Chechens are trying desperately to flee the bombing. After an estimated 40,000 people arrived in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, the Ingushetian authorities closed the border yesterday. On their side of the border, Chechen authorities set up tents for some of the tens of thousands of trapped civilians, and brought piles of firewood. (AP)