A salvo of rockets slammed into the capital of Chechnya today, hitting the city's bustling main market and a maternity hospital and killing scores of civilians, reports from the breakaway region said, as the Russian military appeared to step up its assault on the city.
Chechen officials said the rockets were fired by Russian forces, who in recent days have advanced to within 15 miles of the capital, Grozny, although the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow said it had no information on the attack.
Several rockets hit Grozny's main market, one of the few places where people congregate in the war-ravaged city, according to journalists at the scene, who described a hellish landscape of dismembered bodies and pools of blood. One rocket hit a maternity hospital near the offices of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, according to Magomed Magomedov, a Chechen government official.
"A huge number of people were killed. Some who were sitting in a cafe, some who were selling things at booths, some just walking by. Teenagers. Children. It was a horror," said Alkha Tosuyev, a television cameraman with the Reuters news service who said he counted more than 60 bodies at the market and as many as 200 wounded. A Chechen official told the Associated Press that at least 118 people were killed and up to 400 others wounded.
Understaffed hospitals, operating without electricity, were overwhelmed by the wounded. The AP described victims lying in pools of blood in the dirty, dark corridors of the central hospital because of a shortage of beds. Doctors operated on some of the wounded by the light of kerosene lamps.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered a ground offensive in Chechnya in late September in response to a Chechen-led insurgency in Dagestan, a neighboring region in southern Russia, as well as to terrorist bombing attacks last month on apartment buildings in Moscow and two other cities that officials blame on Chechen guerrillas.
The pounding of Grozny could presage a Russian offensive on the city, although officials here have been vague about whether a land assault is at hand. The Russian military currently occupies the northern third of Chechnya after an offensive that was preceded by heavy shelling and air attacks in the area and elsewhere around Chechnya.
Russian soldiers suffered heavy casualties during a campaign against separatist guerrillas dug in around Grozny several years ago, a conflict that ended with the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region and an assertion of Chechen independence. Russian aircraft bombed Grozny heavily during that conflict, and the damage is still visible today -- almost nothing in the city has been repaired.
In recent days, Russian troops and armored units have advanced toward Grozny, while artillery and rocket batteries have been established on high ground about 15 miles north of the city, making it an easy target.
From the outset of the four-week-old Russian offensive, artillery and ground-attack aircraft have been striking at targets in urban and rural population centers, despite government assertions that only "terrorist bases" -- and not civilians -- were being hit. Chechens have reported an air assault on the town of Urus Martan that killed more than 100 civilians; airstrikes on two buses that killed a total of 66 passengers; a bombing in the village of Elistanzhi that killed about 40 people; and dozens of war-related civilian deaths in other villages.
Russian air force commander Anatoly Kornukov said today that reports of attacks on civilians were an "outrageous libel." At the same time, he said that unless the Chechens change their ways, "explosions will continue; innocent people will suffer."
More than 150,000 Chechens, at least 15 percent of the population, have fled in recent weeks, mostly to neighboring Russian territories.
The popularity of Putin, a declared candidate for next year's presidential election, has soared since he launched the offensive on a pledge to wipe out the "terrorists and bandits" in Chechnya. Today, he flew to Helsinki to discuss the conflict with European Union officials.
Putin has expressed concern recently that Russia was losing the information war on Chechnya because of the wide publicity being given the massive flow of refugees from the territory and reports of indiscriminate bombing of civilians. At a news conference Wednesday, he declared that the Chechens were organizing the refugee exodus to "make the situation look worse" and "give the world the impression of a humanitarian catastrophe."
He said that Russia would not target Chechen civilians because they are citizens of the Russian federation.