Russian troops permitted large numbers of refugees to move out of the breakaway region of Chechnya today, easing a 12-day border blockade that stranded thousands and left them at the mercy of bombings, disease and hunger.
Reports from neighboring Ingushetia, a tiny Russian republic that is the main refugee destination, said thousands of men, women and children were still awaiting entry. At the frontier, Russian troops checked male refugees for affiliation with Chechen guerrilla groups, but let women and children pass through quickly.
Ingush President Ruslan Aushev said 3,000 Chechens crossed the frontier today. The renewed influx will put added pressure on Ingushetia, which had a peacetime population of 340,000 but has added 170,000 refugees. About 10,000 of those are housed in tent cities set up by the Russians, but the rest have had to scramble for shelter, moving into private homes, abandoned factories and farms, construction sites, vacant railway cars, bus stations and, in some cases, living outside.
Russia insists that it can handle the influx without foreign help, but food and medicine are scarce.
Russia launched the ground offensive against Chechnya five weeks ago. After weeks of muted commentary, Western governments have stepped up criticism of Russia's bombing of civilian targets and treatment of refugees. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch expressed alarm; Human Rights Watch estimated that 40,000 refugees were stuck at the border.
Ingush officials expect at least another 100,000 refugees to flee Chechnya if Russia continues its punishing ground and air assault on towns and villages. The Russians say they are trying to dislodge terrorist and bandit groups from their bases and restore Russian rule to Chechnya. Russian officials blame Chechen insurgents for a series of recent apartment house bombings in Moscow and other cities that killed nearly 300 people.
The refugees "fled their homes for fear of bombs and artillery fire. It is the civilians and not the terrorists who have been suffering," Aushev told reporters.
Today in Chechnya, Russian troops were regrouping, according to reports in Moscow. Artillery rained on areas south of the Sunzhensky mountain range in the west and around the besieged town of Gudermes in the east. Russian television showed artillery attacks on mountain villages where commanders said they spotted guerrilla movements. Russian Su-24 bombers and Su-25 attack jets struck the outskirts of both Gudermes and Grozny, the Chechen capital, as well as several mountain hamlets, the Interfax news agency said. Russian officials have adhered to their plan to keep Chechen defenders tied down with airstrikes and artillery while infantry troops advance slowly, to avoid heavy casualties.
In the past few weeks, military leaders have repeatedly warned Moscow not to stop them from gaining control of Chechnya. The officers argue that skittish politicians robbed Russia of victory in 1996, when Russian troops withdrew after a brutal two-year war and the Chechens effectively became independent.
Today, the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper published the latest warning, from Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, a veteran of the first Chechen conflict who is currently the commander of the western front.
"If the army is stopped, there will be a strong exodus of officers of various ranks, including generals, from the armed forces. Russia's officer corps may not survive another another slap in the face," he said.