The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed today that Russian warplanes struck a convoy of civilians in Chechnya on Friday, killing 25 people and injuring 70.
In a statement from Geneva, the agency said the convoy included vehicles from the Chechen branch of the Russian Red Cross, and that the five vehicles in the convoy were clearly marked with a Red Cross emblem. The Red Cross said the vehicles were returning from the Chechen-Ingush border, which had been closed by the Russians.
The Red Cross statement is the first confirmation of an attack on civilians, which Russia has denied since the first reports on Friday. The Red Cross, citing confirmation from its local workers, said a rocket fired from a Russian warplane hit a truck, killing two Red Cross workers and seriously injuring a third. Nearby vehicles also came under fire, the agency said.
The attack has been shrouded by conflicting accounts. A Chechen official, Ramsan Abuyev, told the Reuters news agency that about 40 refugees died and 100 others were injured when their convoy came under fire near the village of Shami-Yurt, west of Grozny, the Chechen capital. He said six vehicles were destroyed. Reuters also quoted a nurse who said she saw the attack.
On Friday and again today, the Russian military denied attacking a civilian convoy. The Russian air force press service said that warplanes were targeting trucks carrying Chechen fighters and weapons. The Russians said the trucks were attacked on a highway west of Grozny because "assault rifles" were fired at an Su-25 fighter jet. The air force said two trucks were destroyed.
Both sides have been engaged in a fierce propaganda war that has made it difficult to ascertain the truth about the fighting in Chechnya. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed today that Chechen gunmen are blowing up their own houses "to make it look like Russian airstrikes." The Russians also renewed their claim today that they are carrying out strikes only on "Islamic militants" and "terrorists," but hospitals are overflowing with civilian casualties from the month-long military assault on separatist guerrillas.
Fighting continued today around Grozny and Chechnya's second-largest city, Gudermes. Russian television reports said military forces were outside of Gudermes but did not yet plan to seize the city.
Russian Su-24 and Su-25 jet fighters continued to pound Grozny, flying 50 sorties in the past day, Russian military officials said. They claimed to have bombed an electronics plant, and there were reports of a large explosion from the bombing of the Grozny oil refinery.
Russia appears to be laying siege to Gudermes and Grozny, unleashing an aerial bombardment and artillery fire and surrounding both cities, but not yet taking them street by street. It was in such urban combat that the Russian army suffered heavy losses five years ago in the first Chechen war.
Reports from Grozny said that most people have fled the city, and those who remain have gone into hiding in cellars at the sound of approaching aircraft.
Russia has in recent days sealed the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia, Chechnya's tiny western neighbor, and refugees fleeing the combat have been camping out there. A promise to open the border Friday was not honored.