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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bus Blast Kills 41 Chechen Refugees

NAZRAN, Southern Russia -- Television pictures obtained Thursday show a charred bus filled with the bloody corpses of passengers, apparently Chechen refugees who came under attack while fleeing the republic.

Reuters Television obtained the footage from an amateur photographer in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia. A Chechen official said 41 people were killed in the attack Tuesday.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and senior military officials earlier denied reports that the busload of refugees had been struck by Russian forces.

"If there had been such an incident, refugees would not still be fleeing to Russia," Putin said.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and Valery Manilov, the first deputy chief of staff, both said they had no information about such an attack, and added that it could not have taken place without their having been promptly informed.

In the video footage, bodies of women and children were heaped among the seats of the wrecked bus. Its roof had been torn off by a blast.

A Chechen man lay a coat over the body of another man, apparently mortally wounded, shivering and gasping in a pool of blood in the grass.

Survivors were shown being ferried in another bus to hospitals and carried out on stretchers. Children, looking on, screamed and sobbed.

The photographer who filmed the images said the bus was in a refugee convoy heading from the village of Chevlyonnaya toward the town of Shelkovskaya on Chechnya's eastern border with Dagestan.

Chevlyonnaya - located along the Terek River to the north of the capital, Grozny - came under heavy bombardment this week. Russian troops have advanced to the river and seized control of the northern third of Chechnya

The photographer said the bus, the last of four in the convoy, was destroyed by a shell fired by a Russian tank. This could not be confirmed independently.

Footage of the aftermath of the attack was shown on Chechen television, and late Thursday the first images appeared on Russian screens. RTR television showed rescue workers removing bloodied bodies, an old man sitting dazed with blood on his face and a kneeling woman sobbing.

The photographer said 11 refugees were killed and 17 wounded. Mairbek Vachagayev, Chechnya's representative in Moscow, told Ekho Moskvy radio that 25 people had been killed outright and 16 more had later died of their wounds.

An Associated Press reporter visited a Grozny morgue filled with bodies, and officials said they were from the attack on the bus.

The television images, and the officials' denials, brought to mind the inadvertent bombings of refugee convoys during NATO air raids on Kosovo earlier this year.

Moscow says it is shelling and bombing only bases and arsenals used by rebel guerrillas, and plants such as oil refineries that provide them financial support.

About 150,000 people have fled their homes during two weeks of bombing.

Russian artillery and tanks on Thursday hammered villages north of Chechnya's capital and waves of warplanes screamed into the sky every 15 minutes to run air raids over the rebellious republic. Scores of tanks were deployed throughout the northern third of Chechnya, where Russian forces apparently were solidifying their positions.

The army appeared to have halted at the Terek River, which separates the northern plains from mountain terrain.

Russian soldiers told an Associated Press reporter that Chechen fighters had put up little resistance in the north, fighting back only in the villages of Chervlyonnaya, 25 kilometers northeast of Grozny, and Mekenskaya, 40 kilometers northwest of the capital. The villages came under hours of heavy shelling again Thursday.

Meanwhile, Russia continued its air campaign against Chechnya, with pairs of warplanes taking off at 15-minute intervals from an air base in Mozdok, in neighboring North Ossetia.

Among other targets, the planes bombed the village of Duba-Yurt to the south of Grozny, Interfax reported, citing Chechen army operations head Mumadi Saidayev.

Saidayev also said a Russian plane crashed into a Chechen mountain on Thursday, but the Russian air force had no immediate comment.

Russia sent ground troops into Chechnya last week, after weeks of air strikes, aiming to wipe out Islamic militants who invaded neighboring Dagestan twice this summer and who are blamed for a series of apartment explosions that killed some 300 people in Russia in September.

The Russians have not said how deep inside Chechnya they plan to go.

Russia said Thursday it doesn't want any foreign interference into its efforts to crush Islamic militants in Chechnya.

"This is an internal problem of Russia that would require a long-term solution,'' Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said after talks with a European Union delegation. "There is no need for mediators.''

The EU delegation consisted of Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen, whose nation currently holds the rotating EU presidency, Portugal's foreign minister, Jaime Gama, and EU Commissioner Chris Patten.

Halonen said the European Union recognizes Russian sovereignty in the region, but was urging Russia to turn from military force to political dialogue as quickly as possible. She said the EU hadn't yet offered to mediate.

Ivanov said the Russian leadership "was open for dialogue with such leaders of Chechnya, who are ready for that.''

"In order to find a long-term solution to Chechnya's problems, we must destroy terrorists and gangs who block a political dialogue,'' he said at a news conference.