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Saturday, October 23, 1999 Published at 17:27 GMT 18:27 UK

World: Europe

Russia tightens noose around Grozny

Russian forces have effectively cut Chechnya off from the outside world

The Russian army has tightened its grip on Chechnya, sealing the entire western border of the breakaway republic amid growing signs that an attack on the capital, Grozny, is approaching.

Battle for the Caucasus
Russian tanks and armoured cars on Saturday blocked the main road between Chechnya and the neighbouring Russian republic of Ingushetia - the last highway out of Chechnya.

The BBC's Steve Jones: "The people who haven't fled are too scared to go outside"
Russian forces are closing in on Grozny, with troops approaching from the north, the northeast and the west.

They have been using pontoon bridges to cross the Terek river from the north of the republic and are said to have encountered stiff resistance from Chechen fighters.

Terrorist incursions

BBC Moscow Correspondent Angus Roxburgh: The Russians are just 20 miles or so from the capital
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Major General Vladimir Shamanov told the Itar-Tass news agency that the border had been sealed to prevent incursions from Chechen guerrillas planning terrorist acts in Russia.

Until now, the highway had remained open despite the month-long Russian offensive against the separatists.

In recent weeks up to 180,000 refugees have used the road as an escape route from the fighting.

Click here to see a map of the region

Backed by helicopters, the Russian forces have established a 10km-wide security zone along the border and threatened to shoot anyone trying to get through.

[ image: Chechen militants have vowed to repel any Russian assault]
Chechen militants have vowed to repel any Russian assault
BBC Moscow Correspondent Angus Roxburgh says the move increases the likelihood of a Russian attack on the Chechen capital, Grozny.

In recent days, the Russians have consolidated their forces around the city, while Chechen rebels have dug trenches and laid mines in preparation for a possible Russian onslaught.

Russian officials have refused to say whether they are planning a ground assault on the city.

Airstrikes continue

[ image: More reinforcements are being sent to support the Russian campaign]
More reinforcements are being sent to support the Russian campaign
Attacks by Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships have also been reported in several parts of Chechnya, including on Grozny airport.

The Defence Ministry in Moscow is quoted as saying that Russian warplanes struck suspected guerrilla bases near the towns of Bamut and Achkkhoi-Martan, southwest of Grozny, as well as rebel positions in other villages surrounding the capital.

Officials have dismissed Chechen claims to have shot down two Russian aircraft.

Moscow is coming under increasing international pressure to end its military campaign in Chechnya after an explosion at a Grozny marketplace on Thursday killed and wounded scores of people.

The city's streets are reported to be largely empty after the attack - those residents who have not yet fled being too scared to venture outside.

On Friday, Russian officials gave contradictory accounts of Russia's role in the blast.

Military spokesmen officials described the attack as a "special operation" against armed bandits, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin denied Russian forces had been responsible.

Call for talks

[ image: Russia insists its is not targeting civilians]
Russia insists its is not targeting civilians
The US Government and the United Nations have put pressure on Russian and Chechen leaders to begin talks on ending the violence.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on a visit to Kenya on Saturday that recent events in Chechnya were "deplorable and ominous".

She said the Russians should have learnt in their last war in Chechnya that "this kind of violence is not a solution".

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov: The solution lies through political dialogue
But Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that Moscow would sit down with separatist rebels in Chechnya only if they accepted the principle of Russian sovereignty.

Other conditions, he told Spanish radio, included respect for Russia's constitution and "a clear condemnation of terrorism".

[ image:  ]

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