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Russians let civilians flee Chechnya

Published: Thursday, Nov. 4 1999 12:00 a.m. MST

SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Russia (AP) -- Russian soldiers allowed terrified civilians to flee Chechnya Thursday, opening a key border crossing for a second day after stranding thousands of refugees at the frontier for more than a week.

Russian border officials were allowing 500 people an hour to cross from Chechnya into Ingushetia Thursday at the Sleptsovskaya border point. About 3,500 people were allowed to cross on Wednesday when Russian officials relaxed strict controls at the border for the first time in days.The flow was stopped briefly Thursday when the crowd surged toward the concrete and barbed-wire as a convoy of visiting dignitaries drove through. Ingush police fired into the air to stop the crowd.

Thousands of civilians waited Thursday on the border, hoping to leave Chechnya soon. Among them was Tamara Grigoryevna, a 68-year-old ethnic Russian from the Chechen capital, Grozny.

"I have taken all my relatives out of there, and we're all going to Russia," she said. "We won't survive another war."

Chechnya won de facto independence after the 1994-96 war, but Moscow insists it is still part of Russia.

For the first time, officials were permitting combat-age Chechen men to enter Ingushetia. Previously, they had allowed only women, children and the elderly.

Overnight, battles were concentrated in the eastern part of Chechnya.

Chechen forces launched 12 attacks on Russian troops, and Russian airplanes and artillery unleashed heavy strikes against rebels massing on Chechnya's eastern border, with Dagestan, said army spokesman Igor Melnikov.

He said rebels had opened fire on troops inside Dagestan, and that 10 of the militants had been killed. There was no way to verify the claim.

Russian aircraft kept up their bombing of villages throughout Chechnya overnight, and artillery hammered the outskirts of Grozny. Chechen officials met today to discuss how to help civilians who were staying in spite of the barrages.

"Helping victims of the Russian strikes has become a problem, since the Russians are bombing roads and have already destroyed many bridges," Deputy Prime Minister Kazbek Makhashev said. "Often, it's simply impossible to take victims to hospitals."

The Russian Interior Ministry said today that 10 of its troops had been killed in Chechnya since Russian forces moved into the republic, the Interfax news agency reported.

The Defense Ministry said Wednesday that 137 Russian army soldiers have died in this year's Chechnya fighting, but the military is widely believed to understate its casualties.

In Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called today for the temporary introduction of visas for people traveling from the Caucasus nations of Georgia and Azerbaijan into Russia.

Georgia borders on Chechnya, and the Russian government claims that militants have been able to cross the mountainous frontier into the breakaway region. Azerbaijan abuts Dagestan, and there has been speculation in Russia that Islamic militants heading for Chechnya have crossed Azerbaijan from Turkey and the Middle East.

The Defense Ministry said today that 300 mercenaries had arrived in Chechnya from Tajikistan, and that 500 Islamic militants from various countries were currently being trained in Afghanistan for duty in Chechnya, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Putin said the visa regime should be in force as long as Russia was fighting what he called an anti-terrorist campaign in Chechnya. In spite of high civilian casualties, Russia says it is targeting Islamic militants, who twice invaded Dagestan this summer and who are blamed in the apartment explosions that killed 300 people in Russia in September

As refugees flooded the road leading to Ingushetia on Wednesday, Russian troops traveled in the other direction, advancing six miles into Chechnya. Chechen officials said their fighters were unable to stop the Russian advance for fear that fighting would hurt the refugees.

Since ground troops entered on Sept. 30 after weeks of airstrikes, Russian forces have advanced far into Chechnya from the north and east, but have made less progress from Ingushetia in the west. Warplanes and heavy artillery have pounded the southwest part of Chechnya for weeks, trying to soften up rebel positions.

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