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Russian Shells Hit Grozny, Killing Scores of Civilians

By Daniel Williams
THE WASHINGTON POST -- MOSCOW

Rockets slammed into the capital of Chechnya Thursday, hitting the city’s bustling main market and a maternity hospital and killing scores of civilians, reports from the breakaway republic said, as the Russian military appeared to step up its assault on the city.

Chechen officials said the rockets were fired by Russian forces, who in recent days have advanced to within 15 miles of Grozny, although the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow said it had no information on the attack.

Several rockets hit Grozny’s main market, one of the few busy places in the war-ravaged city, according to journalists at the scene, who described a hellish landscape of dismembered bodies and pools of blood. One rocket hit a maternity hospital near the offices of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, according to Magomed Magomedov, a Chechen government official.

“A huge number of people were killed. Some who were sitting in a cafe, some who were selling things at booths, some just walking by. Teenagers. Children. It was a horror,” said Alkha Tosuyev, a television cameraman with the Reuters news service who said he personally counted more than 60 bodies at the market, and as many as 200 injured.

A Chechen official told the Associated Press that at least 118 people were killed and up to 400 others injured.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched the ground offensive in late September in response to a Chechen-led insurgency in Dagestan, a neighboring republic in southern Russia, as well as to terrorist bombing attacks last month on apartment buildings in Moscow and two other cities that officials blamed on the Chechen rebels.

The pounding of Grozny would seem to herald an offensive on the city, although Russian officials publicly have been unclear on whether a ground assault on Grozny is at hand. Russia’s armed forces heralded their advance through the northern third of the republic with heavy bombing and shelling.

Russian troops suffered heavy casualties during an assault on separatist guerrillas in Grozny during the 1994-1996 war that ended with Russia’s withdrawal from the republic and Chechnya’s effective independence. Russian aircraft also heavily bombed Grozny and the damage is still visible Thursday -- almost nothing in the city has been repaired.

In recent days, Russian troops and their armor have been advancing on Grozny. The Russians control heights within 15 miles of the city, making it an easy target.

During the offensive, artillery and jet bombers have consistently attacked urban and rural population centers, despite government assertions that only “terrorist bases” -- and not civilians -- are being targeted. Chechens have reported an air assault on the town of Urus Martan that killed more than 100 civilians, hits on two buses that killed a total of 66 passengers, a bombing in Elistanzhi that killed about 40 people and dozens of civilian deaths in several other villages.

Air Force commander Anatoly Kornukov said Thursday that reports of attacks on civilians were an “outrageous libel.” At the same time, he said that unless the Chechens change their ways, “Explosions will continue, innocent people will suffer.”

More than 150,000 Chechens, at least 15 percent of the population, have recently fled the republic.