Russian warplanes pressed their assault on Chechnya's meager industrial landscape for a fifth day today, hitting bridges and oil and communications facilities, and prompting thousands more panicky civilians to flee towns and villages throughout the region.
Su-24 and Su-25 ground-attack jets made 50 strikes in the mountainous region, Russian authorities reported. Among sites targeted specifically, Russian reports said, were properties controlled by Shamil Basayev -- the Chechen guerrilla commander who ignited the latest Caucasus war last month with an assault into neighboring Dagestan, proclaiming he would turn it into an Islamic republic.
Russian planes also bombed and fired rockets at economic and military installations in smaller towns and villages throughout Chechnya, according to reports from the region.
Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov -- who has denied any government connection with Basayev's guerrillas -- said 300 people have been killed in airstrikes and around Grozny, the capital, and he requested an urgent meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rejected Maskhadov's appeal, saying: "We will not hold meetings for the sake of meetings."
Most of the fleeing refugees have moved west toward Ingushetia, a neighboring Russian territory in the Caucasus region, more than 900 miles south of Moscow. Russia's NTV television said authorities in Ingushetia allowed 50,000 people to enter by Sunday but then closed the border -- only to reopen it today with time-consuming demands for identity papers from people seeking to cross.
Ingush officials warned of a humanitarian crisis as the refugees streamed in. Cars and trucks jammed border crossings as police meticulously inspected trunks and cargo. Some travelers complained that if their identification cards bore only Chechen nationality, they were turned back. Ingushetia's deputy prime minister, Zakre Sultygov, told the Russian Tass news agency that his government has appealed to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for help in handling the influx of fleeing Chechens.
Thousands of Russian troops have taken up positions around Chechnya, which has been effectively self-governing since the Russian army pulled out after being humiliated by Chechen rebels in their 1994-96 battle for independence from Moscow.
Officials here said the troops have been assigned to block guerrilla infiltration routes into Dagestan, but they have declined to rule out a ground offensive into Chechnya, and the buildup of tanks and other heavy equipment in the area suggests such an attack may be in the works. Indeed, the question being asked here is whether the Kremlin intends simply to punish Chechnya for the rebel incursion into Dagestan or to mount a full-scale ground operation to try to restore its control over the separatist region.
For the moment, Russian pride as much as security concerns appears to be at stake. Officials here say they are determined to reverse the military's image of ineptitude acquired in the Chechen conflict and the perception that Moscow is unable to deal with internal problems. "We will succeed; there will be no `if,' " Putin said.
Russian tactics at present seem to be modeled on NATO's strategy during the Kosovo war, which was heavily criticized here. Like NATO, the Russians are preoccupied with limiting their casualties by waging war from the sky. For now, Russian leaders say, they will avoid the costly ground assaults that they believe were responsible for the retreat from Chechnya three years ago.
"The difference this time is, we will not thoughtlessly send our boys to absorb hostile fire," Putin told the newspaper Vremya-MN. "We will act with the help of modern forces and means to destroy the terrorists from a distance; we will destroy infrastructure. This will require time and patience."
Television images from Chechnya are reminiscent of those of NATO attacks on largely civilian installations in Yugoslavia. Black clouds billow from oil depots in and around Grozny, and columns of smoke rise along roadways. Russian commanders have tried to justify attacking civilian targets, saying they form the backbone of the Chechen guerrillas' efforts to wage war in Dagestan and of a terrorist bombing campaign in Russian cities. "These tactics are almost fully identical to what NATO did in Yugoslavia," the newspaper Izvestia commented.
Russian officials acknowledge that civilians are among the victims of the air raids, but the pounding of Chechnya has created no stir in Russian public opinion. Although Russian attacks on Chechen cities three years ago provoked revulsion, people here appear ready this time to accept the idea that Chechnya must be severely punished.
Many believe -- and the government has insisted -- that Chechens are responsible for a recent series of bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and other cities that have killed 300 people. "We have been forced to defend the lives of our citizens," Putin said today.
The targets of the Russian airstrikes include oil refineries that the Russians say funnel money to Basayev's private army. Warplanes also blasted a shop where trucks were disguised as official army and police vehicles for use in the clandestine infiltration of Dagestan, said Igor Korotkov, an Interior Ministry spokesman.
From the Russian point of view, the results of the air campaign are encouraging, and officials here noted that Chechen leaders have dropped their bellicose pledges of a tit-for-tat response to the Russian attacks.