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Refugees flee Russian bombing of Chechnya

Updated:
GROZNY, Russia (AP) -- Terrified civilians tried to flee Chechnya
by the thousands Monday, driven out by a Russian bombing blitz
intended to crush Islamic militants in the breakaway republic.

"I wish I were dead," mourned Tamara Aliyeva, 70, whose house
in Grozny was destroyed by Russian bombs. "I don't know what to do
or where to go."

Aliyeva joined tens of thousands of Chechens who headed for the
neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia in hopes of finding
refuge -- only to find the border closed.

In Grozny, Russian airplanes were raining bombs and missiles for
the fifth straight day. Witnesses said oil refineries in Grozny
were ablaze, blanketing the capital in choking black smoke.

Russian jets also struck other cities and villages throughout
Chechnya, targeting suspected militant bases along with oil
derricks and other industrial facilities.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov claimed Monday that 300 people
had been killed in Grozny alone. The figure could not be
independently confirmed.

Many Chechen refugees trapped on the Russian border were in a
state of shock.

"Where is my Mama?," 8-year old Liza Temirsultanova kept
asking between sobs.

Her grandfather, Ayup Temirsultanov, said that Liza's mother,
baby sister and two brothers had all been killed by Russian bombs
in Grozny on Monday.

The bombing is aimed at weakening Islamic militants, who have
twice invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan in
recent weeks from their main bases in Chechnya. They also are
blamed for a series of terrorist bombings in Moscow and other
Russian cities that have claimed 300 lives.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Monday that the bombing of
Chechnya would continue "until the last bandit is destroyed,"
according to the Interfax news agency.

The strikes have rekindled fears about the possible introduction
of ground troops into Chechnya, despite a disastrous 1994-96 war in
which Russian troops were clobbered by a much smaller guerrilla
force. Chechnya has run its own affairs since winning de facto
independence, but Moscow claims it is still part of Russia.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tried Monday to allay nervousness
about a possible repeat of the war, in which Russia often sent
poorly trained troops into battle.

Russia will rely on air raids to knock out infrastructure and
"patiently, methodically destroy (the militants) from the air,"
Putin said. If any Russian troops were deployed, they would be
highly trained and used only for "cleanup operations."

Maskhadov, who says his government is not connected to the
militants, said in a televised address Sunday that he would exert
all his efforts to avoid full-scale war and called for a political
dialogue with Moscow.

Putin said the Kremlin was planning on a meeting between
President Boris Yeltsin and Maskhadov, but it wouldn't take place
until the Chechen leader had denounced terrorism in his republic
and Moscow was sure the militants couldn't use a meeting to their
advantage.

"We're going to back away from meetings for the sake of
meetings, from meetings for the sake of giving militants time to
lick their wounds and carry out strikes on us from another side,"
Putin said after meeting with Yeltsin in the Kremlin.

In a meeting Monday with Col. Gen. Konstantin Totsky, head of
the Russian border service, Yeltsin said Russia's borders must be
strengthened so that weapons or militants cannot enter the North
Caucasus. The Border Guards are patrolling both Russia's external
borders and the internal border separating Chechnya from other
Russian regions.

Meanwhile, fleeing Chechens headed mostly for Ingushetia. After
50,000 people had arrived, Ingushetian authorities closed the
border Sunday. They allowed some refugees to enter on Monday after
extensive identity document checks, Russia's NTV television
reported.

Despite that, refugees continued pouring out of Grozny and other
Chechen towns Monday, camping out in an open field near the border
village of Sleptsovskaya, 30 miles west of Grozny. Some were taken
in by local residents, but most had to stay in tents.

Local authorities were delivering food, medicine, firewood and
other emergency supplies. Sergei Shoigu, Russia's minister for
emergency situations, said he would fly to the region Tuesday to
assess needs.

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