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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Blasted for Attack on Samashki

SHALI, Chechnya -- A fierce Russian assault on the Chechen village of Samashki drew unprecedented criticism from the pro-Moscow government in Grozny on Monday, even as Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said federal army units would begin withdrawing from the republic in April.

The attack on Samashki, some 30 kilometers from Grozny and close by the village of Sernovodsk which federal troops stormed two weeks ago, came after three days of shelling.

"It is completely encircled, they are shelling and using helicopter strikes," Akhmed Khamzayev, 39, a field commander in the southwestern Chechnya said of Samashki on Monday.

Russian troops were blocking people from leaving or entering the village, including the deputy Chechen prime minister Abdula Bugayev, who tried Sunday to go in to negotiate between the two sides, Khamzayev said. The Red Cross was also being barred entrance, he said.

Bugayev later described the assault on Samashki as "illegal," Interfax reported. It could breed resentment against the Russians and lead to greater support for the rebel cause, he said.

He added that the Chechen government, which has remained silent during previous Russian attacks, had called for a cease-fire to allow people to leave.

A corridor was opened for 2,000 refugees Friday, and more were said to be getting end the Chechen conflict, although he released no details of the plan.

Grachev said Monday that army units would start withdrawing in April from the tiny North Caucasus republic, which they entered 15 months ago.

"A gradual withdrawal from Chechnya of military units not taking part in special operations will begin from April, as promised by the president," Itar-Tass quoted Grachev as saying. But he did not explain what "special operations" meant, and offered no further details saying that he did not want to pre-empt the president.

Monday's assault on Samashki began after an ambush Sunday in which, Itar-Tass reported, 11 Russian servicemen were killed and another 20 soldiers were injured. A 12th serviceman was killed and nine others were wounded in separate attacks in the 24 hours up to Monday morning, according to Interfax.

Casualties among Chechen fighters and civilians were not known Monday.

Khamzayev said he had sent a group of armed fighters into Samashki on Sunday "to get the wounded out." He estimated that some several dozen wounded were still inside the village. One of his fighters was killed and one was wounded when troops of the 58th Army moved into the village Friday, Khamzayev said. "They call it restoring constitutional order," he said, shaking his head.

Samashki was on the verge of signing a tripartite peace agreement with the military and the pro-Moscow government in Grozny, said one young man, who declined to give his name, who escaped through the Russian cordon Saturday.

The agreements to disarm and disband armed formations are part of Russia's latest efforts to pacify the territory.

"I am not a fighter, but I will take up arms and go through the woods to take my family out," the young man said.

Khamzayev said 267 men from Samashki, including boys as young as 12, had been arrested as they tried to accompany their families out of the village Sunday. Official Russian sources confirmed that young men had been taken for screening. "They loaded them up and took them away in a military truck," he said, most likely to one of the notorious filtration camps in Chechnya.

"People began to say it is better to stay and die than risk going out through the Russian encirclements," the young man said.

The latest siege of Samashki is part of a broad offensive by Russian soldiers across Chechnya.

Russian jets have been bombing the stronghold villages of Bamut, Stary Achkhoi and Orekhoro, where rebel fighters have held out for nearly a year against repeated Russian onslaughts.

On the plain below Shali, the 58th Army has spread out, encircling Samashki and the nearby village of Katyr-Yurt. Heavy booms of explosions, flashes of light and red tracer arcs in the direction of Samashki were visible in the evening sky from Gekhi, 7 kilometers away Sunday.

Katyr-Yurt was facing the same treatment as Sernovodsk and Samashki, Ali Bashayev, head of the village administration said Friday. Russian forces dug in barely 1 kilometer from the village delivered an ultimatum that they turn over 100 weapons and 10 POWs within 24 hours or they would use artillery on the village before a mopping-up operation, Bashayev said.

"It was an ultimatum," Bashayev said. "We are awaiting a bombardment. People are not sleeping. We expect nothing good."