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Sunday, October 24, 1999 Published at 17:54 GMT 18:54 UK

World: Europe

Civilian casualties mount in Chechnya

Refugees fear a ground assault on Grozny

The civilian death toll from Russia's air and artillery bombardments in Chechnya climbed sharply on Sunday, with Chechen officials reporting more than 60 dead in three attacks.

The BBC's Lyndsay Marnoch reports: "Western leaders have voiced concern over Russia's use of force"
A correspondent for Reuters news agency witnessed the funerals of 27 people killed in the south-eastern village of Serzhen-Yurt in a bombing raid shortly after dawn.

Nine children were among the dead, residents said.

Battle for the Caucasus
The Chechen authorities reported two other attacks. One was in the town of Vedeno, also in the south east, where a rocket was said to have killed 23 people.

Shelling was reported to have claimed the lives of another 16 people in the western village of Samashki.

The Russian bombardment came despite international calls for an end to Moscow's offensive in the breakaway republic after Thursday's rocket attack on the capital, Grozny, which killed around 140 people.

[ image: Russian bombers have been raiding Chechnya since early September]
Russian bombers have been raiding Chechnya since early September
Chechen reports say that a further 163 people died in attacks on Friday and Saturday.

It was not clear how many of the dead were fighters, and how many were civilians.

In Thursday's attack missiles fell on a market and a maternity hospital. Many of the casualties were women and children.

The Russian military acknowledged firing missiles at targets around the towns of Bamut and Achkoi-Martan in the east of the breakaway republic, but said they were aimed at rebel military positions.


Earlier, the President of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, denounced Russia's closure of Chechnya's western border to fleeing refugees.

The BBC's Jonathan Charles: "The deaths will exacerbate worries amongst Western governments"
Hundreds are queuing up at the border, to try to escape Russian bombardments and a widely-feared attack on the Chechen capital, Grozny.

"These people now have no way of getting out of Chechnya," Mr Aushev said.

"I am outraged by these actions. We should not be fighting with women, grandfathers and children," he told the French news agency.

Up to 180,000 Chechens have left their homes since Russian bombardments began on 5 September. Most have travelled westwards to neighbouring Ingushetia. President Aushev has repeatedly appealed for more help to cope with the influx.

Click here to see a map of the region

The flow of refugees increased after Russian ground troops entered the breakaway republic on 1 October.

[ image: A Chechen child tries to keep warm at a camp in Ingushetia]
A Chechen child tries to keep warm at a camp in Ingushetia
Russian forces closed the border on Saturday, saying their aim was to prevent Chechen guerrillas launching terrorist acts in Russia. They have threatened to shoot anyone trying to get through.

But President Aushev said that Chechen fighters could find other ways of crossing the border.

"The bandits are walking around as they please, and the peaceful population are suffering most," he said.

As Russian troops consolidate positions less than 13km (eight miles) from Grozny, Chechen fighters are reported to have prepared for an attack by digging trenches and laying mines.

[ image: Chechen fighters are strengthening positions]
Chechen fighters are strengthening positions
Officials have refused to say whether they are planning a ground assault on the city.

Government ministers are making efforts to respond to growing international criticism of the bloodshed in Chechnya, including Thursday's deadly missile attack.

The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who described recent events in the republic as "deplorable and ominous" is due to hold talks by telephone on Sunday with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

The BBC's Robert Parsons reports: "The Georgian army is preparing for the worst"
Speaking in Spain on Saturday, Mr Ivanov said the only way to guarantee Russian security was through a "war against terrorists".

Chechen rebel fighters launched two incursions into neighbouring Dagestan this year, and have been blamed for a series of apartment block bombings in Russia.

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