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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechens Deny Grozny Surrounded

GROZNY -- A senior Chechen military official on Wednesday denied Russia's claim that Grozny is 80 percent surrounded, saying that approaches to the south and east remained open.

Mumadi Saydayev, the republic's military commandant, also brushed aside Russian reports that Chechen fighters were leaving the capital en masse and taking refuge in the southern mountains.

"All are in their positions," he was quoted as saying by Interfax.

On Tuesday, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said militants had pledged to stay and fight in Urus-Martan, 20 kilometers southwest of Grozny, through the winter. The city could be the first where militants make a concerted stand against Russian forces.

Russian jets and artillery continued to pummel the Urus-Martan region, but Chechen defenses to the west of the city appeared strong. Russian military sources said rebel ranks in Urus-Martan had risen to 3,500, Interfax reported.

Russian bombers and helicopters flew 86 sorties over the past 24 hours, the military announced Wednesday morning. It said 10 trucks, six defense positions, a communications post and an anti-aircraft gun were among the Chechen targets destroyed.

In Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin denied Russian forces intended to raze Grozny.

"We do not aim to destroy Grozny. We aim to eliminate terrorists,'' Interfax quoted Putin as saying.

Refugees continued to pour out of Chechnya. On Tuesday, 1,674 Chechens crossed into Ingushetia, Ingush officials said.

The former mayor of Grozny, Bislan Gantamirov, toured a refugee camp in Ingushetia on Wednesday. Earlier this month, he was pardoned by President Boris Yeltsin and freed from prison, where he had been sent for embezzling millions of dollars meant for rebuilding Chechnya. Almost immediately, he was appointed head of the pro-Moscow Chechen State Council.

Many of the residents of the Sputnik refugee camp were harshly critical of Gantamirov.

"They sent a bandit to find other bandits. They will reach a deal and divide the money sent from Moscow, like they did during the last war," said a 34-year-old resident of Grozny who gave only his first name, Isa. "As long as Russia keeps sending criminals to lead us, we will remain criminals ourselves since we will have to live in a criminal state."

Ingush President Ruslan Aushev said several buses filled with Chechen refugees would be taken Wednesday to Gudermes, Chechnya's second largest city, which is controlled by Russian troops.

But he said the refugees seemed to be in no rush to go back.

"Who can guarantee that airstrikes will not be repeated?," Aushev was quoted as saying by Interfax.

The Human Rights Watch advocacy group offered another reason why refugees might be reluctant to return to Chechnya: alleged widespread looting by Russian troops.

In a statement, the group quoted Chechen villagers as accusing Russian soldiers of stealing livestock, appliances, winter stores of food and even floorboards and electric fixtures.