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Russia: Planes Bomb Chechnya A Second Day As Thousands Flee

Grozny, 24 September 1999 (RFE/RL) - Russian war planes today again bombed targets in and around the Chechen capital of Grozny, heightening tensions in the breakaway Caucasus region. Chechen officials claim up to 13 people died in today's air strikes. They say the victims included up to five who were killed in strikes on Grozny and eight who died when Russian planes struck a column of cars 50 kilometers west of the city. Thousands of people are reported to be fleeing their homes. Reports say 5,000 vehicles today jammed a road leading to neighboring Ingushetia.

There is no independent confirmation of the death toll, but an eyewitness in Grozny tells Reuters he saw four planes drop bombs on the city today. The Russian military say the strikes are aimed at rebel bases but not at civilians.

The air raids follow attacks yesterday in which Russian planes pounded targets around Grozny -- the first major air raids on the city since the 1994-96 Chechen war.

Russian officials blame Chechen-based Islamic rebels for twice invading Russian territory in Dagestan in recent weeks and also for a string of apartment-block bombings in Moscow and southern Russia that have killed 300 people.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov today urged Moscow to choose dialogue and not force. He said that what he called the catastrophe unfolding in the Caucasus can only be stopped if Russia's leadership agrees to solve problems by political means. He said this will save many thousands of Russian and Chechen lives.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said today that international terrorists -- with foreign backers -- have declared war on Russia. He said they are trying to use Chechnya as a base to split resource-rich regions from the Russian Federation.