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Russians Troops Allow Mass Exodus of Chechnyan Refugees

By Daniel Williams

Russian troops permitted large numbers of refugees to move out of the breakaway region of Chechnya on Thursday, easing a 12-day border blockade that stranded thousands and left them open to bombings, disease and hunger.

Reports from neighboring Ingushetia, a tiny Russian region that is the main refugee destination, said thousands of men, women and children were still awaiting entry. At the border, Russian troops checked male refugees for affiliation with Chechen guerrilla groups but let women and children pass through quickly.

Ingushetia President Ruslan Aushev said 3,000 Chechens crossed the border Thursday. The influx will put added pressure on Ingushetia, which had a peacetime population of 340,000 but now holds 170,000 refugees. About 10,000 refugees are housed in tent cities set up by the Russians, but the rest must scramble for shelter, moving into private homes, abandoned factories and farms, construction sites, vacant railway cars, bus stations and, in some cases, simply living outside.

Russia insists it can handle the refugee influx without foreign help, but supplies of food and medicine are scarce.

Russia launched the ground offensive against Chechnya five weeks ago. After weeks of subdued condemnation, Western governments have stepped up criticism of Russia’s bombing of civilian targets and treatment of refugees. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch expressed alarm; Human Rights Watch estimated that 40,000 refugees were stuck at the border seeking escape.

Ingushetia officials expect at least another 100,000 refugees to flee Chechnya if Russia continues its punishing ground and air assault on towns and villages. The Russians say they’re trying to dislodge terrorist and bandit groups from their bases and restore Russian rule to Chechnya.

Russian officials have blamed Chechen insurgents for a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities that killed nearly 300 people. The refugees “fled their homes for fear of bombs and artillery fire.”