Russian forces attacked Chechnya’s capital region from the air Monday, targeting petrochemical plants outside the city in maneuvers one rebel leader described as acts of frustration.
“It means they’re losing hope of taking Grozny,” said Salaudin Kitayev, a Chechen commander, standing on the outskirts of Alkhan-Yurt as Russian fighter-bombers dropped their cargo. “Otherwise, they’d save the factories for themselves.”
Russia has been unable to take Grozny, the secessionist republic’s capital, despite a ferocious five-week offensive.
Fierce fighting also was reported Monday in Grozny south of the Sunzha River, a rough front line that had separated Chechens to the south from Russians to the north for weeks.
The air attacks quickened the exodus from the capital, once home to 400,000 people. Marina Bersanova, 30, left in a bus with her two terrified children Monday.
“The planes were flying literally right over our houses,” Bersanova said when she arrived in Nazran, capital of neighboring Ingushetia. “It is impossible to live there any longer.”
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on Monday sent a 14-member team to help implement an international relief operation for 160,000 refugees from Chechnya. They flew to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, near Chechnya.
There are an estimated 90,000 displaced people in Ingushetia, 65,000 in Daghestan and 5,000 in Ossetia.
Chechen fighters emerging from Grozny claimed their forces were tightening a circle around a force of 70 Russian tanks and other armored vehicles in the southern suburb of Prigorodnoye. They said a fierce battle was under way.
“They can’t get out from this ring,” Kitayev said. “We will destroy them.”
Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev claimed Monday that the army had full control over the last remaining fortified rebel positions in Grozny and had cut off the city from the south, Russian news agencies said.
While Russian troops have penetrated northern Grozny, they had been unable to close southern routes out of the city and into the mountains.
Past government claims have proven exaggerated, however, and Chechen fighters on Monday were still moving in and out of the city from the south.
From a mountain base, it is widely believed the rebels could conduct a protracted guerrilla war, with hit-and-run tactics.
Chechens manning a checkpoint on a strategic eastwest road leading through Samashky said town elders had been holding daily talks with the Russians to persuade them that the fighters were defending their town and would not attack.
Tens of thousands of people have fled Chechnya, which had a pre-war population of just 1.2 million, since the Russian army launched its bloody incursion Dec. 11 to oust the separatist government.