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Friday, November 5, 1999 Published at 22:42 GMT

World: Europe

Thousands flee Chechnya fighting

Russia has promised to protect the refugees if they return

Thousands of civilians from Chechnya have continued to cross into neighbouring Ingushetia as Russian warplanes launched further attacks in the breakaway republic.

Battle for the Caucasus
Moscow says 6,000 people entered Ingushetia in the past 24 hours, and has pledged to keep the crossing open for longer each day.

It began to re-open the border for brief periods earlier this week after sealing off the breakaway republic nearly two weeks ago.

Nearly 200,000 civilians have fled to Ingushetia.

As the exodus continued, Russia's emergency situations minister called on the refugees to return to Chechnya.

The BBC's Orla Guerin: "Moscow is tightening its grip against targets all over the republic"
Sergei Shoigu pledged that "the government will guarantee full security to people who return to liberated Chechen villages," Itar-Tass reported.

Mr Shoigu said Russia was planning to set up well-protected camps for civilians in the northern third of Chechnya that the Russian army controls. He said 30,000 people could already be accommodated and urged refugees to return to Russian-controlled parts of Chechnya.

But the BBC's Orla Guerin in Moscow says thousands more may want to leave Chechnya soon, despite Russian promises to protect those who return.

[ image: Russia says its forces are digging in near Grozny]
Russia says its forces are digging in near Grozny
It is not known how many civilians have been killed or injured in the latest attacks, although Chechen authorities say some 3,600 people have been killed since Moscow launched its offensive, most of them civilians.

The latest Russian air force statement says 120 Chechen rebels have been killed in recent attacks, but makes no mention of any other fatalities.

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, says many of the refugees will spend the winter in tents in neighbouring regions. It said it was sending supplies and equipment to the refugees, who include 400 babies born in makeshift camps.

Click here to see a map of the region

Russia has continued its massive air and artillery bombardment of Chechnya, with reports of new ghost towns being created every day.

The BBC's Andrew Harding: "Grozny is being systematically destroyed"
Russia's army headquarters at Mozdok, just outside Chechnya, was quoted as saying that planes had made more than 100 sorties in the past 24 hours.

The Itar-Tass news agency, quoting regional military officials, said air and artillery attacks hit around a dozen villages and the southern outskirts of the capital, Grozny, and continued pounding positions around the rebel stronghold of Bamut in the south-west.

[ image:  ]
Russian forces have blockaded Gudermes, the republic's second largest city, and have approached Grozny on three sides.

Mumadi Saidayev, the Chechen military chief of staff, said the Russian forces were pulling armour and other heavy weapons onto the ridge, but did not appear to be moving closer to the capital.

International concern

Western governments are concerned at the growing humanitarian crisis in Chechnya.

The BBC's James Robbins: "Western governments are arguing the case for moderation"
But BBC Diplomatic correspondent James Robbins says governments are desperate to say as little in public as possible.

They fear they will do more harm than good by denouncing Russia's handling of a situation which, it is accepted, is an internal affair. Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation.

Our correspondent says ministers and heads of government in major capitals seem to accept that private not public pressure on President Yeltsin is the least dangerous path.

Further pressure, it is feared, would risk helping extremists in Russia to win more support in next month's elections and also re-open the wounds with Russia which were created by the West's military intervention over Kosovo in Serbia.

[ image:  ]

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