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Russia: Chechen Civilians Face Continued Bombardment

Russian officials say Chechen civilians who are not harboring militants have nothing to fear from federal troops. But RFE/RL correspondents in the region say Chechen towns are still being shelled, even after they invite the military in. They also report that civilians ordered to flee the breakaway republic's capital Grozny may not be able to comply.

Moscow, 9 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After telling Grozny residents this week that they must flee the city by Saturday (Dec. 11) or be treated as military targets -- the Russian military backtracked under a storm of international protest.

But within Russia, criticism of the move was mild to nonexistent. Even the reformist Yabloko party, whose leader Grigory Yavlinsky was the first politician to tentatively call for a political settlement, did not comment on the Russian order to civilians. Yabloko Deputy Vladimir Averev explained to RFE/RL that Yabloko has been silent because the situation is unclear. Averev said the situation had been exaggerated. In his words: "it is still not very clear what the military actually meant so in case of doubt it is better to wait and see before screaming like the West about human rights violations."

Western countries reacted strongly to what they perceived as a direct threat to noncombatants. Russian officials tried to defuse the uproar by explaining that they had issued a warning, not an ultimatum as widely viewed in the West. They added that the corridor for refugees linking Grozny to Pervomayskoye and the Ingush border will stay open after Saturday.

But RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Khasin Raduyev reports from Chechnya that civilians still living in Grozny are at extreme risk. Russian planes continue bombing the capital, which makes it extremely dangerous for people to crawl out of their hiding places and try to reach the supposed corridor. He reports he knows of very few inhabitants who have managed to flee the capital.

Raduyev says he believes at least 40,000 people are still living in Grozny. The city, he says, attracted thousands of Chechens from the mountains, who fled the bombing of their villages. Raduyev reports that far from being the abandoned town Russian generals claim it to be, Grozny continues to show stubborn signs of life.

"The inhabitants of Grozny are scattered around the whole city. They have not assembled in one place, they live in the basements of their own homes. These basements are under apartment buildings. And in the evening, when it gets dark, people light candles, kerosene lamps. You can see that in a lot of windows, a light is shining."

Quoting Russian generals, Russian television is reporting that the last strongholds outside of Grozny -- Shali and Urus-Martan -- are now in Russian hands. Russian officials have been reassuring residents of encircled Chechen towns that if the Chechen fighters leave and the villagers do not resist, Russian forces will not bomb the towns. But RFE/RL correspondents report that, in several cases, the Russians have continued to bomb towns that had asked to surrender.

Khasin Raduyev reported yesterday from the Shali district that Chechen commanders are following a new strategy of retreating to the mountains to avoid the destruction of villages. He says the inhabitants of Shali, populated by 80,000 people before the war, did invite Russian forces in, as Russian television reported, but it did not go smoothly.

Raduyev reports that a few days ago, a delegation of Shali villagers held talks with local Russian officers, offering to let the soldiers enter the village peacefully. According to Raduyev, the Russians rejected the proposal and bombed the center of Shali close to the market, killing five people.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Andrey Babitsky reports a similar story from the Urus-Martan district. He reports that a delegation of elders from Alkhan-Yurt, a village closed off from the outside world by Russian troops, appealed unsuccessfully to General Vladimir Shamanov to end the shelling and let the residents leave.

Babitsky reports that the villagers tell a tale of siege.

"In Alkhan-Yurt, people are sitting in the basements and almost can't get out into the streets. They can't even go see their neighbors. The armored vehicles drive past the houses at high speed and shoot at them. There's a real hunt for young men of 17 to 35 years. Women pick up the dead bodies. In the basements, you usually have about 30 people. That's also where the corpses lie. So there's a catastrophic lack of space. According to Zatsida, [a woman who escaped the village], in some basements they have already begun piling up corpses and burying them to make space for the living."

Babitsky reports that General Shamanov rejected the civilians' plea to let them out. The general said his troops must first finish "cleansing" Alkhan-Yurt of possible Chechen fighters.