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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Missile Destroys Refugee Convoy

ON THE CHECHEN BORDER -- Refugees fleeing Russia's month-long bombing campaign in rebel Chechnya said Friday they had seen warplanes strike another refugee convoy, spilling corpses onto the side of the road.

At least 50 refugees trying to flee were killed and many more wounded when a Russian jet fired a missile at a convoy of vehicles heading toward neighboring Ingushetia, Chechen officials said.

Witnesses said the jet dived at the convoy near the town of Samashki and fired at least once, setting cars and trucks ablaze.

A tiny group of wounded were the only ones allowed out of Chechnya, which has been cut off for a week, despite promises that Moscow would reopen the sealed frontier Friday.

"There were many dead, many wounded," said Rose, a nurse who accompanied the small group of wounded out on Friday, describing the attack she saw on a convoy of refugees near the villages of Samashki and Shami-Yurt earlier in the day.

Her face was pale and she was clearly in shock. Other refugees shook and sobbed. The wounded, none of whom had been in the convoy that was struck, were taken to a hospital.

The head of a Russian government information center in Moscow, Mikhail Margelov, said Russian planes had struck two trucks near Shami-Yurt, but said they contained guerrillas who had opened fire at the aircraft.

Reports that the target was a refugee convoy were "provocations," RIA-Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.

Samashki and Shami-Yurt, just a few kilometers from the border with Ingushetia, have been under heavy Russian bombardment for days. From the border, Russian warplanes and

helicopters could be seen firing rockets into the villages.

Most of Chechnya's 190,000 refugees have fled to Ingushetia, but Russian officials sealed the border last weekend, saying it wanted to stop fighters from escaping. They had promised to open up four corridors out of Chechnya on Friday for refugees. But Vladimir Shamanov, commander of federal forces in the western North Caucasus region, said they would have to wait.

"Two days. Two more days. We'll see you here in two days' time. That's it. Goodbye!" he yelled back at shouting refugees in a gruff harangue aired on NTV television.

"We'll let you leave when you're all dead," one border guard said Thursday to women pleading to let their children cross the border.

A traffic jam of some 5,000 cars stretched some 3 kilometers on the Chechen side of the border, although officials let several vehicles with injured people cross. Russian officials at the site promised that the road would be reopened Sunday.

The few refugees who Thursday received special permission to cross - because of injuries or illness - said they had lived on bread and water for the past five days.

Towns and villages along the Chechen side of the border have come under frequent fire from Russian helicopters and artillery, they said. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of refugees are stranded in the area trying to get out.

"Once, a helicopter fired bullets in a field near where people go to urinate,'' said Sharifa Nazhayev, who arrived Thursday with two young daughters. "I think they want us even to die of a heart attack.''

For many, the Oct. 21 Russian rocket attack on a Grozny market, in which scores of people were reported killed, was the last straw, refugees said.

"We knew we could not stay anymore,'' said Nazhayev, 27, who left Grozny two days after the attack. "We know that anything and anyone can be hit.''

Her husband, a truck driver, was not permitted to accompany her into Ingushetia. "The guards scolded him,'' she said. "They asked, 'Why are you trying to hide behindwomen's skirts? Go back and fight.'"

Nazhayev and a neighbor, Zina Shatayev, fled by bus. Normally, the fare to the border is 30 rubles, just over a dollar. The driver took pity and charged them 15 rubles because they would need the money for food, Nazhayev said.

Not all Chechens were so kind. Chechen militiamen sporting the characteristic long beards worn by the region's Islamic fundamentalists - called Wahhabis, after a pious Saudi Arabian sect - commandeered civilians' cars and trucks for the war effort, the women said. The rebels criticized men for fleeing.

The refugee women had nothing good to say about the Islamic rebels, who are led by Shamil Basayev, one of numerous Chechen guerrilla leaders who have made the republic a lawless redoubt.

"They have built themselves big houses. Africans and Arabs run around like they own Chechnya. They have brought us plenty of disasters,'' said Shatayev, who brought a son with a chronic back problem out of Chechnya.