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The BBC's Lindsay Marnoch
"So far this campaign has gone well for the Russian military"
 real 28k

The BBC's Orla Guerin
"Russian troops have been closing in on Grozny from all directions"
 real 28k

Sunday, 5 December, 1999, 07:52 GMT
Russia denies killings during Grozny assault
Russian soldiers push down a cannon Balance of power: Russia prepares to step up its attack

Russia is preparing to intensify its assault on Grozny after declaring it has the Chechen capital completely surrounded.

Battle for the Caucasus
However, the apparent gain was overshadowed by allegations that troops had killed Chechen civilians - vigorously denied by Russian officials.

"The city of Grozny is fully under blockade. Yes, today on 4 December I can officially say this," Russian General Viktor Kazantsev told Russian television on Saturday.

He also said the military planned to open a route out of Grozny on Monday to allow civilians to return to Chechnya.

General Kazantsev said the civilians would be housed in tent camps that had been set up in the Russian-controlled north of Chechnya.

A crosses a checkpoint near Sleptsovskaya More than 230,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring Ingushetia
Reports from Russia say more than 34,000 people have already returned to their homes.

The Kremlin has strongly denied any involvement on the part of its forces in the killing of 40 refugees in a convoy fleeing the capital on Friday.

Russia's Defence Ministry dismissed the allegations as Chechen propaganda and said federal troops had not even been on the stretch of road where the incident is said to have taken place.

But a woman who said she had survived the attack told the Reuters news agency in neighbouring Ingushetia that soldiers wearing the badges of the Russian special police had opened fire on a column of refugees.

Another survivor, who was wounded, told the Russian-language Radio Liberty that masked Russian troops had opened fire on the civilians.

'Masked gunmen'

"They came up themselves. Their cannon was a bit further away, and they shot from their rifles right at point blank (range)," refugee Tatyana Aidamirova told the US-sponsored radio station.

"They checked the cars. They saw that dead people were lying there. They did not explain anything.

"They were all in masks, and so satisfied, as if that was the way it should be. I do not know such cruel people, that everyone had to die."

vollebaek Knut Vollebaek is to visit the region later in the month
Russian officials have on several occasions been forced to reject allegations that federal soldiers have killed civilians during the campaign to crush Islamic militants - blamed by the Kremlin for a series of a series of bomb attacks on Russia targets.

Russia's declaration that it had sealed off the capital came amid reports of fierce fighting in the rebel stronghold of Argun, which straddles the main road leading into Grozny.

The BBC's Orla Guerin in Ingushetia says Russia's claims that it had completely surrounded Grozny seem to be premature because there is still fighting in at least one area.

However if Russia has not yet encircled the capital, it is likely to do so soon, according to our correspondent. Moscow has devoted huge amounts of man- and firepower towards building a ring around Grozny.

The Russian army hopes to avoid having to storm Grozny, where thousands of its soldiers were killed there in a failed assault during the 1994-96 war in Chechnya.

OSCE visit

Western and Islamic leaders have repeatedly expressed concern over the humanitarian situation in the breakaway republic.

Russia has launched a strong diplomatic offensive to fend off Western criticism of the campaign but had seemed to stall on allowing the head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to visit the region.

However, Russia says it has agreed to allow OSCE head Knut Vollebaek to visit the North Caucasus in mid-December.

Mr Vollebaek said he was satisfied with the agreement, adding that he hoped the OSCE would be able to help find a lasting solution to the conflict.

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See also:
04 Dec 99 |  Europe
Russia 'seals off' Grozny
04 Dec 99 |  Europe
'Russians fired on refugees'
01 Dec 99 |  Europe
Chechens 'using human shields'
30 Nov 99 |  Europe
How war came to a Chechen village
25 Nov 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Russia's fighting tactics
28 Nov 99 |  Europe
Escape route for refugees
27 Nov 99 |  Europe
IMF warning to Moscow
19 Nov 99 |  Europe
Analysis: East-West relations must shift

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