`Safe corridor' killings prompt ceasefire calls

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CLAIMS BY refugees fleeing Grozny that Russian forces attacked a bus travelling on a "safe corridor" route out of the city, killing four civilians, led to renewed international calls last night for a ceasefire.

The corridors were set up by Moscow to encourage civilians to leave the besieged city, but Knut Vollebaek, acting head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said the attack showed that the routes were not safe.

Earlier, as Mr Vollebaek, who is also Norway's Foreign Minister, arrived for an official visit, Russia was intent on leaving no doubt in the mind of the most senior European official to visit Chechnya since the start of the war three months ago that it alone will determine the future of the country.

Mr Vollebaek, who flew into Znamenskoye, a Chechen town north west of Grozny, was greeted by elderly Chechens at a town meeting presided over by Nikolai Koshman, Moscow's special envoy to Chechnya. It quickly turned out that the audience were all of the same mind: they welcomed the return of Russian power to Chechnya and opposed talks with Chechen leaders. "My father and grandfather were together with Russia and let me and my grandchildren live together with Russia for ever," one elderly Chechen said. Another asked Mr Koshman if Russia "will betray us again and retreat".

Mr Vollebaek was clearly finding the endorsements of the Russian invasion a little hard to take. He said that the OSCE would arrange all the aid it could, and that the Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, "should be included in the political process because he is the legally elected president".

It was not entirely surprising that Russia should have laid on a town meeting for Mr Vollebaek endorsing its position, but curious that everyone who spoke was aged over 60. One reason may be that Russia has promised that Chechen pensions will once more be paid.

The towns in this part of Chechnya were not badly damaged by the Russian bombardment, but many houses appear abandoned. Shops are shut and often the only sign of life is women selling cigarettes beside the road. In the refugee camp at Znamenskoye, Sala and Raisa Elmourzayev had just arrived from Grozny after walking 20 miles through shell fire. "There is no food there," they said. "Dogs are eating cats in the city."