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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Troops Dig In on Chechen Territory

SERNOVODSKOYE, Chechnya -- Refugees continued to stream out of Chechnya on Friday as Russian planes pounded the republic for the ninth day and Russian troops dug in several kilometers inside Chechnya's northern border.

Much of the country was without electricity or gas, and there was a shortage of drinking water in Grozny, the capital. In many rural areas, residents were digging trenches and preparing to receive refugees at local school buildings.

Russian forces, which advanced into northern Chechnya on Thursday, dug in overnight about 5 kilometers inside the border in the Naursky and Shelkovsky regions, but did not engage in combat with Chechen forces, Chechen Defense Minister Magomed Khambiyev said.

The Russian military did not provide information on where its troops were, but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said that Russia can put its troops wherever it pleases since Russia considers Chechnya part of Russia.

Khambiyev said that "military operations can begin only after an order by the commander in chief [Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov]." He added that he believed possibilities for a peaceful solution had not been exhausted. But he warned that if Russia launches a full-scale invasion, Chechen forces would not retreat to the hills in the south, as they did when driven from Grozny during the 1994-96 war, but this time would "transfer operations to the territory of Russia."

Russian planes and artillery pounded Chechen territory constantly, with shells fired from Dagestan hitting populated areas in eastern Chechnya, Khambiyev said. Interfax reported that planes destroyed a seventh bridge over the Argun River, leaving only the one on the Grozny-Gudermes road.

Russia launched the attacks after Islamic militants led by Chechen-based guerrilla leaders Shamil Basayev and Khattab seized villages in Dagestan during August and September, saying they intended to create an Islamic republic. Russian officials also blame Chechens for a string of apartment bombings that have killed about 300 people, though Chechnya denies the charges.

Russia says it is targeting the warlords, who operate independently of Maskhadov. But civilian targets have been frequently hit.

Chris Carpenter, the head of the Moscow office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said there could be 100,000 refugees in neighboring Ingushetia within days if the current pace continues, The Associated Press reported.

"Most of the people who do arrive are women and children, and they are in good physical condition," Carpenter said. "But when they arrive in Ingushetia, there's very little accommodation for them."

Four trucks carrying tents, mattresses, food and other supplies from the UNHCR arrived in Ingushetia, but assistance remained inadequate, officials said. Many aid groups have pulled out of the North Caucasus or reduced their presence due to rampant kidnappings.

Estimates of the number of refugees range from 68,000 to over 80,000. Ingush President Ruslan Aushev said Friday that 3,000 refugees were arriving each day, Reuters reported.

Refugees have complained of border guards' extorting bribes and rent gouging for lodging in the border area.

A Russian plane also dropped a bomb in northern Azerbaijan on Friday, according to Azerbaijan's military, but the Russian military denied the report.