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Monday, November 1, 1999 Published at 16:29 GMT

World: Europe

Battle for Chechnya 'intensifies'

Russian soldiers make their way to positions in the Naurski region

Russian warplanes are reported to have attacked the Chechen capital Grozny as federal troops say they have also sealed off the breakaway region's second-largest city.

Battle for the Caucasus
The Interfax news agency reported that Russian planes had intensified the bombing campaign against the capital.

Russian military officials also said federal troops had sealed off the second city of Gudermes, 30km (20 miles) east of the capital,

Chechen officials said the siege of the city, was not complete and that fighting was still going on.

But a Russian military spokesman told the ITAR-Tass news agency: "We actually control, including from the air, all highways. All strategic heights on ridges around Gudermes have been occupied,"

'Propaganda of terrorists'

Interfax quoted Russian military commanders as saying they will take Grozny but have no immediate plans to storm the capital.

The BBC's Flora Botsford: "They meet little resistance"
Reports of the bombing campaign against Grozny and other villages came as the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin dismissed Chechen claims of civilian casualties in Russian airstrikes as false propaganda.

"Everything that concerns the bombing of peaceful residents is the ill-intended propaganda of terrorists," he said on Sunday in an interview on a Moscow radio station.

In the latest report of civilian casualties, medical workers and Chechen officials said at least two villages were bombed, leaving dozens dead or wounded.

Reports of civilian casualties

The Associated Press quoted the head of a local hospital as saying 15 people were killed and 51 wounded when jets early on Sunday bombed Kurchaloi, 45km (28 miles) east of Grozny.

A Chechen official also told the news agency that seven people died on Saturday when warplanes bombed Chiskhi, 30 km (18 miles) south of Grozny.

The International Red Cross said two of its local workers had been killed and one badly wounded when a refugee convoy came under fire outside Grozny.

Several other vehicles also came under fire, killing at least 25 people and injuring 70 more, the aid agency said.

US concern

Russian officials rejected reports that they attacked the convoy.

The BBC's Richard Lister: "Mrs Albright made crystal clear her concern"
About 200,000 Chechen refugees have fled to neighbouring republics in the face of the Russian onslaught, prompting the US to express concern about the plight of civilians.

At talks in Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushaylo, that she could not see how the two sides could reach a negotiated political solution to the conflict based on Moscow's current strategy.

Her spokesman said that, during the hour-long meeting, she made crystal clear her concern about the direction the Russian military campaign was taking.

The US says it recognises Moscow's right to combat internal security threats but has repeatedly criticised the humanitarian impact of the current operation.

Officials have also expressed concern about reports of widespread Russian intimidation of Chechens and other groups throughout the Caucuses region.

Mr Rushaylo, for his part, gave the US Secretary of State what he said was hard evidence of Chechen terrorism.

'Terrorists targeted'

Moscow says its military campaign is aimed at Islamic guerrilla groups based in Chechnya who have launched raids on neighbouring Dagestan and whom Moscow blames for bomb blasts in the rest of Russia which killed nearly 300 people.

But Chechen doctors working for the international humanitarian organisation, Medicines du Monde, say that is not true.

A Moscow-based spokesman for the organisation said: "There are a lot of civilian victims. They are bombing hospitals, schools, markets, houses."

BBC Moscow correspondent Andrew Harding says there is now overwhelming evidence that Russia's massive air bombardment is causing heavy civilian casualties.

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