Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acknowledged today there "might have been some mistakes" during Russia's relentless bombing of Chechnya, but dismissed the charge that Russian forces deliberately target civilians.
His remarks, made in a radio interview, marked the first time a top Russian official had responded with anything but a flat "no" to reports of indiscriminate bombing, rocketing and shelling during the month-long assault on separatist guerrillas. They came a day after the International Committee of the Red Cross said trucks bearing Red Cross emblems and carrying civilians were bombed from the air Friday. Twenty-five people, including two Chechen Red Cross workers, were killed and 70 others were injured.
"Everything that concerns the bombing of peaceful residents is the ill-intended propaganda of terrorists," he said. "No special actions to inflict damage on the peaceful population are being carried out or will be carried out."
Russian warplanes continued to hit the Chechen capital Grozny, the Interfax news agency said. Also hit were the railroad station and neighborhoods near the downtown office of President Aslan Maskhadov.
Troops also surrounded Chechnya's second-largest city Gudermes, Russian reports said. Taking Gudermes would complete a three-sided control of the approaches to Grozny.
Assaults on civilians have begun to rattle Western governments, which had been restrained in their criticism of Russia. The West, including the United States, regards the war as an internal Russian affair. They are also unsympathetic to lawless Chechnya, which Russia says harbors terrorists who bombed five apartment buildings in Russia last month, killing at least 300 people.
Russian officials insist only terrorist bases have been subject to attack. "We have tasks other than forcing the Chechen people to their knees," Putin said.
The prime minister is trying to win the Chechens' hearts and minds, but the reality is that the very people he's trying to win over are being punished.
Yusup Magomedov, 14, was lying in the Sunzhensk Hospital in Ingushetia, west of Chechnya on Saturday. He has no legs. They were amputated after he was wounded in an Oct. 24 attack on Novy Sharoi, about 20 miles west of Grozny.
He was among about 50 wounded civilians ferried Friday from Chechnya to the neighboring region of Ingushetia by special permission of Russian border troops. Eight days ago, Russia sealed the frontier to refugee traffic, and since then has let only a handful of women, ill children and injured Chechens pass.
Yusup's mother, Leila, said he was wounded at their home when Russian jets bombed. "In Chechnya, there are no medicines. We had to bring our own blankets," she said.
Sunzhensk Hospital's surgical ward was overflowing with the seriously injured. Most were women, but there were also children and adult men.
Fruit vendor Towaha Bibalatov, 31, lost both legs in the Oct. 21 Russian attack on Grozny's central market. His sister, who had accompanied him to Ingushetia, said Grozny's Hospital No. 9, one of the few still functioning, lacks enough medicine and anesthetics to treat the wounded. "They amputate because there's nothing else they can do," she said. "It is like a factory conveyor belt."