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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Air Attack Kills 120, Chechnya Says

GROZNY -- Russian jets struck homes and military targets in the Chechen capital with rockets Tuesday, and Moscow said it had launched a "decisive offensive" in the breakaway southern republic.

A Chechen spokesman claimed 120 people were killed in three overnight air raids on Grozny, the radio station Echo Moscow reported.

Russian television reported that two Russian military doctors and crew members were killed when Chechen rebels shot down a Russian army helicopter northeast of Grozny. The helicopter was serving as an ambulance and was downed as it was preparing to land, Ostankino said.

Protesting the escalating Russian offensive, more than 100,000 Chechen civilians formed a human chain Tuesday running for kilometers along the main road across Chechnya. Many held hands and sang; some held placards with such messages as "Freedom For Chechnya" and "We Will Not Surrender."

The protest was called by beleaguered Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, who denounced the Russians for the "mass killing of peaceful citizens."

Emergency crews rushed about Grozny putting out fires and trying to restore electricity after the attacks. Anxious Chechens inspected their ruined homes and the huge craters left by bombs.

"You can see everything for yourself. What shall we do?" asked Gelani Bochayev, 64, a pensioner whose nephew's family was killed by a bomb in their apartment near the city center.

There were few people on the streets amid a light snowfall. Some waited for the few buses still operating. Chechen fighters set up positions inside the city, filling bottles with gasoline to make bombs that have been dubbed "Chechen moonshine."

Packs of stray dogs began roaming the city, which was once home to 300,000 people.

Up to 100,000 people have fled since fighting broke out with Russian troops.

Russian warplanes buzzed overhead, but were hidden by low clouds. The rumble of guns could be heard in the distance.

Moscow sent an estimated 10,000 to 40,000 soldiers into Chechnya on Dec. 11 to oust Dudayev and disarm his supporters.

The mostly Moslem republic declared independence from Moscow in 1991, a declaration the Kremlin has rejected.

Early-morning air raids Tuesday targeted residential areas and administrative buildings in Grozny, Itar-Tass reported.

Heavy gunfire was heard close to dawn Tuesday from the northern and northeastern outskirts of the city.

The presidential press service quoted Dudayev as saying Chechens are irate over "the mass killing of peaceful citizens -- children, women and old people," Itar-Tass said.

In Moscow, the Russian government warned Dudayev to prepare for further attacks.

"Today, Russian troops will continue delivering missile-bomb strikes on the most important objects and will conduct decisive offensive actions," the government statement said, indicating the intensified offensive had started Monday night.

The Chechnya conflict has emerged as a key test of Boris Yeltsin's presidency.

Yeltsin's supporters argue that if Chechnya's 1.2 million people are allowed to secede from Russia, it could start a chain reaction leading to Russia's disintegration and global destabilization.

But the use of force has generally been unpopular. Although few Russians sympathize with Dudayev, they worry that Russia could get bogged down in a guerrilla war in the Caucasus, a moutainous region of overlapping ethnic groups conquered by Russia last century after decades of bloody battles.

In an effort to limit Chechnya's military capability, Russia announced Tuesday that it was closing its borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan to prevent the movement of rebel fighters to the rebel region.

A Foreign Ministry statement carried by Itar-Tass said that from Tuesday midnight, Russia would only allow its residents returning home to cross land borders with the two former Soviet republics.

Russia says that foreign fighters keen to join the Chechen cause have been entering via the two republics.

Fierce fighting was reported Monday in the village of Dolinskoye, about 25 kilometers northwest of Grozny. Chechen authorities rushed reinforcements, and news reports and government officials said the Russian troops made only small advances.

Russian armored vehicles also were trying to punch toward Grozny from the south, from about 10 kilometers out, Interfax said.

In the central square where Dudayev supporters gather for Islamic prayers, hand-lettered posters urged Russians to withdraw and avoid spilling blood.

Dudayev earlier blasted Western leaders for failing to condemn Russia's offensive.

"How can a country like Russia get away with massacring people without facing international sanctions?" he said in an interview with Associated Press Television, singling out U.S., British, French and German leaders for blame. "They're responsible for this vandalism."

Russian officials said their goal is to blockade Grozny rather than seize it. They say Dudayev's supporters smuggle arms, drugs and other contraband.

(AP, Reuters)