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Chechen Bombing to Continue Says Russian Defense Minister

By Carol J. Williams
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- MOSCOW

Russian Defense Minister Igor D. Sergeyev on Thursday surveyed the deadly swath his federal forces have cut through embattled Chechnya and warned that troops will continue pounding the southern republic with airstrikes and artillery until it is expunged of all “terrorists.”

Russian Sukhoi Su-24 and Su-25 warplanes and Mi-24 helicopters bombed villages near the capital in an intensified air campaign that engulfed already shattered hamlets in flames, while ground troops tightened the noose around the capital, Grozny, in preparation for what appeared to be a full-scale assault or siege.

The Chechen capital has been under intense bombardment for days, and hundreds of civilians have been killed in the attack. Kremlin officials contend that the assault is aimed at Chechen rebels accused of raiding the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan and carrying out a spree of apartment bombings in Russia last month that killed more than 300.

The army claims the attacks have destroyed the homes of two Chechen chieftains, guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev and former President Zelimkhan A. Yanderbiyev. However, the scenes of mayhem broadcast back to Moscow from the region show mostly terrified women, children and old men fleeing the bombardment. Most have taken refuge in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia, already bursting with nearly 200,000 driven from their homes by the rekindled war.

Sergeyev and his commanders predicted that they will have Grozny fully encircled within a few days and will drive guerrillas into mountainous areas to the south in a final push to conquer Chechnya, a Russian republic that has been virtually independent since rebels defeating Moscow’s forces in a 1994-96 war.

“We are here for the long haul and have the most serious intentions,” Sergeyev told front-line troops during his visit, apparently designed to bolster the fighters’ morale and public support. “No one should have any doubts about it. We have come here to stay forever.”