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Russia: Prime Minister Says Combat Operations Underway In Chechnya

Moscow, 30 September (RFE/RL) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said today that combat operations are underway in Chechnya with Russian forces taking control of hills and mountains just inside the breakaway republic. He said that Russian troops had been entering Chechnya for two weeks. Putin did not rule out a full-scale invasion by the estimated 50,000 troops and large numbers of armored vehicles gathered around the republic. Putin's comments came after a week of bombing inside Chechnya by Russian planes which sent more than 60,000 Chechens fleeing to neighboring Ingushetia. Ingushetia said a humanitarian crisis was looming because up to 200,000 Chechens could seek shelter in Ingushetia. Russia news agencies quote military sources as saying that Russian troops today moved up to 15 kilometers into Chechnya. The agencies also say Russian warplanes continued air strikes on Chechen territory. The targets included a brick factory in Shali and oil refinery northeast of Grozny.

Russia has said it intends to eradicate Chechnya-based Islamic fighters who twice invaded Dagestan this summer and are blamed for terrorist bombings which left 300 dead in Russia.

Chechnya gained de facto independence after a 1994-96 war with Russia in which tens of thousands died. The Chechen defence minister said today that his forces would retaliate behind Russian lines. Meanwhile, the European Union today urged Russia to reopen a dialogue with moderate political forces in Grozny to end the Chechen conflict. The EU said in a statement that further military escalation would cause huge civilian casualties.

The statement followed a joint declaration by France, Germany and Italy, expressing concern over Russia's bombing campaign against Chechnya. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in Brussels that the military campaign in and around Chechnya is an internal Russian matter.