Russian Aircraft Bomb Chechen Rebels
GROZNY, Russia (AP) _ A stream of refugees, driving their cattle before them, fled villages in western Chechnya on Thursday to escape an intense Russian bombing attack launched to flush out separatist fighters.
The villages of Alkhazurovo, Komsomolskoye and Goiskoye were bombed and rocketed. The fiercest fighting was reported at Samashky, local officials said.
Defense Minister Pavel Grachev told the Interfax news agency that Russian troops were attacking in four directions: west, southwest, south and east, with the fiercest resistance encountered in Samashky.
Officials with the Moscow-backed Chechen government said aerial photos showed a network of trenches and bunkers built by rebel fighters around the western villages.
At least 10 civilians from Alkhazurovo, Komsomolskoye and Goiskoye were rushed to the district hospital Thursday with serious wounds, Ali Yasayev, deputy head of the district administration, told the ITAR-Tass news agency from nearby Urus-Martan.
He said refugees were constantly arriving in Urus-Martan.
At Samashky, the scene of week-long fighting, thousands of civilians have fled the Russian assault, but thousands more were reported trapped.
The Russian military says civilians are able to leave through a ``humanitarian corridor,″ but that claim was disputed by human rights groups, international aid workers and local officials.
Tarkhan Khadzayev, a district official in nearby Achkhoi-Martan, told ITAR-Tass that because of confusion on Wednesday the Russian shelling was taking place at the same time that civilians were being evacuated.
He said the bodies of 15 civilians and three servicemen were removed from Samashky on Wednesday, and that about 70 bodies in all had been recovered in recent days.
The villages are the latest to come under Russian siege in western Chechnya in recent weeks, and thousands of people have fled into the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.
Some towns are signing pacts with Russian troops, agreeing to keep rebel fighters out in exchange for being left alone.
The war began 16 months ago when President Boris Yeltsin sent thousands of troops into Chechnya to end its three-year independence drive. Up to 30,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians.
At least one Russian soldier has been killed and two others wounded in fighting throughout Chechnya since Wednesday. There was no immediate word on rebel casualties.
In other developments Thursday, a bomb exploded in a Russian city near Chechnya, gravely wounding Col. Andrei Yanenko, deputy military commissioner of the Stavropol region. Police suspect Chechen involvement.