Russians claim troops will take Chechen capital within 10 days

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The Independent Online
GROUND FIGHTING increased around the Chechen capital, Grozny, yesterday as Russian forces battled for control of strategic targets including a military airport on the eastern outskirts of the city. The Russian forces also surrounded Shali, 12 miles south-east 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 the Russians had captured the military airport east of Grozny. A representative of the Chechen commander Shamil Basayev said rebel forces had retaken the airport after it was briefly held by Russian troops.

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 areas to the south and east. Chechen leaders and some Western reporters insisted the Russians were again bombing and shelling in areas on the outskirts of the capital 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, said one report from Chechen fighters.

In Moscow, Nikolai Kosh-man, 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 the capitulation. Vladimir 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 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 to clear the way for the final offensive to take the capital. Far from leaving, many hundreds of people are reported to be crossing back over the border from Ingushetia in the hope of bringing out 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 initially said the Su-25 aircraft was believed to have crashed because of technical reasons, but the Chechen chief of staff, Mumadi Saidayev, said it was shot down by Chechen forces. He also claimed two Russian military helicopters were shot down as they tried to rescue the pilot, but that claim could not be confirmed.