By Peter Graff

4 Dec 1999
By Peter Graff
MOSCOW, Dec 4 (Reuters)

Russia said on Saturday the Chechen capital Grozny was fully under blockade, but Moscow's triumph was overshadowed by a report that Russian troops had massacred a column of refugees fleeing the city.

"The city of Grozny is fully under blockade. Yes, today on December 4,- I can officially say this," General Viktor Kazantsev told NTV commercial television in a report from Russian headquarters in Mozdok outside Chechnya.

His comments came just hours after U.S.- sponsored Radio Liberty said 40 refugees had been slaughtered at point blank range on the outskirts of Grozny.

Russia's Defence Ministry labelled the report and accounts of the incident in other media as "disinformation", Itar-Tass news agency said. A wounded survivor told the Russian language Radio Liberty that masked Russian troops had opened fire on a column of civilians fleeing the city.

"They came up themselves. Their cannon was a bit further away, and they shot from their rifles right at point blank," refugee Tatyana Aidamirova told Radio Liberty.

"They checked the cars. They saw that dead people were lying there. They did not explain anything. They were all in masks, and so satisfied, as if that was the way it should be. I do not know such cruel people, that everyone had to die."

In a conflict that has seen large numbers of civilian casualties from artillery and air strikes, the report, if confirmed, would be the first such large-scale massacre by troops on the ground. Radio Liberty's correspondent Andrei Babitsky said the convoy contained seven cars and a bus. Aidamirova, whom he found lightly wounded at a hospital in Sleptsovsk in nearby Ingushetia province, was in the only car with survivors.

Babitsky said a bullet had struck the petrol tank of the bus, causing an explosion. Aidamirova's car, riddled with bullet holes and broken glass, was the only vehicle allowed to leave Chechnya on Friday.

Defence ministry officials said they could not be blamed for the attack because their forces had not yet taken the stretch of road where it was reported to have taken place.


Chechen rebels acknowledged that Russian forces were scoring important gains on the battlefield.

The Chechen rebel Internet web site said guerrillas had been forced to withdraw from the town of Argun to the east of Grozny and the village of Alkhan-Yurt to the west, both of which guard key approaches to the capital.

It acknowledged 28 fighters had died fighting for the two settlements, more than rebels have conceded in past battles.

The acknowledgement lent weight to a report on Interfax news agency late on Friday that Chechens had conceded the capital was encircled.

Russian troops were moving toward the main highway heading into the south from Grozny and had exchanged heavy fire with Chechen guerrillas overnight, said. Russian warplanes bombed Grozny and Urus-Martan, a town 15 km (10 miles) to the south, where rebels are still making a stand. Russian commanders say the town is their next target.

"For these gangs, Urus-Martan is the link for mounting prolonged resistance in Grozny," First Deputy Chief of Staff Valery Manilov said in televised remarks on Friday. "In the coming days, the task of blockading Urus-Martan and other towns and clearing them of bandits will be resolved."

Until last week, the 100,000-strong Russian force had met relatively little resistance from Chechens as they swept into the province, but as the Russians have come closer to Grozny, the Chechens have begun putting up more of a fight. Russia said a week ago it was launching a new phase of its operation and would now pursue Chechen guerrillas into the mountains to the south. That announcement was accompanied by new blanket artillery and rocket attacks on Grozny.

Russian commanders hope to avoid having to storm Grozny, where thousands of Russian troops died in a botched assault during the 1994-96 war in Chechnya.


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