Russian warplanes screamed over the Chechen capital today, bombing houses and killing scores of people as ground forces fought to approach the city from three directions. The attacks were among the heaviest against Grozny since Moscow launched its campaign to wipe out Chechen-based Islamic militants in the separatist southern region more than a month ago.
President Boris Yeltsin said Russian troops would not stop their offensive until they "destroy the center of international terrorism in Chechnya."
Chechen defense headquarters said 116 people, mostly civilians, were killed in today's air and artillery attacks, but that figure could not be confirmed. Streams of desperate civilians fled to the countryside, joining tens of thousands of other Chechens left homeless by the Russian assault.
Huge plumes of smoke rose over Grozny as Russian jets roared over the city in pairs. Bombs and rockets destroyed houses and apartment buildings--including the home of Shamil Basayev, a guerrilla commander whose forces played a major role in ousting Russian troops from the region three years ago as Chechen rebels fought for independence from Moscow.
Basayev's forces were among those who attacked a number of towns in the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan in August and September, prompting Moscow to launch the campaign against them. Russian officials also blame the guerrillas for four apartment house bombings in Russia last month that killed more than 300 people.
Russia has repeatedly said its current attack is limited to rebel positions, and air force chief Anatoly Kornukov has said that "peaceful civilians both in and outside Grozny are spared missile and bombing strikes." But Chechen Vice Premier Kazbek Makhashev called today's raids "state terrorism . . . a slaughter of the people."
Yeltsin said Moscow is determined to press ahead with its campaign. "Russian soldiers and officers are bringing peace back to the long-suffering Chechen land," he said in his most extensive comments yet on the fighting.
A Russian offensive in eastern Chechnya appeared to be coordinated with an advance on Grozny from the north by tank-backed infantry. Chechen defenders said they traded fire with Russian forces about two miles from the capital in the village of Tolstoy-Yurt, to the north. Russian troops pressing from the west were said to have heavily shelled the town of Pobedinskoye.
Chechen commanders appeared confident about defending the capital, where guerrillas inflicted heavy losses on the Russian army during the 1994-96 war. Moscow has sent mixed messages on whether it will try to take Grozny. After broad success in the month-old offensive, the military now appears to be trying to occupy all of the region to end its de facto independence.