Russian warplanes pounded central Chechnya today with bombs and missiles, targeting aviation and oil supplies in a marked escalation of hostilities against the secessionist region.
Only a few days after Russia insisted that the military was confining its attacks to rebel encampments on Chechnya's mountainous eastern border with Dagestan, Russian Su-24 and Su-25 jets fired missiles at the main airport north of Grozny, the Chechen capital, and dozens of other locations, according to reports from the area. One person was reportedly killed at the airport.
After more bombings tonight, a huge oil distribution center outside of Grozny was reported ablaze, and the city was shrouded in thick smoke.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed to attack the Chechen rebels "wherever they are" but insisted anew that Russia is not preparing a large-scale ground invasion.
In Grozny, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov convened an emergency closed meeting of members of the government and parliament, and also called up former Chechen military commanders to give them instructions in case of a Russian invasion, the Interfax news agency reported.
Russia has stationed thousands of troops along the Chechen border in an attempt to seal off the region. Russian officials have vowed to stop further incursions into Dagestan like the two made in recent weeks by Islamic fighters under the command of Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev.
The fighting in Dagestan was followed by four terrorist bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities between Sept. 4 and 16 that claimed the lives of nearly 300 civilians. Russia has vowed to punish those Putin today called the "bandits" and "terrorists" responsible for the bombings and has intensified aerial attacks on Chechnya. Interfax quoted Russian generals today as saying they are considering for the first time in the Chechen conflict using Russia's Tu-22 medium- and long-range bombers, which can carry an extensive payload.