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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rights Group: Refugee Path Fired On

Russian forces often fire on a busy highway used by refugees fleeing Chechnya, and troops have demanded bribes to allow civilians out of the war zone, a human rights group said.

Despite mounting criticism in the West, Russia has not scaled back its military operation in Chechnya, carrying out 60 air raids Thursday in spite of foggy weather. However, bad weather and poor visibility forced the Russians to ground their war planes Friday, the military said.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, issued a report Thursday detailing the dangers faced by the more than 200,000 Chechen civilians who have left since the Russian campaign began in August.

The Russian forces regularly fire on Chechnya's east-west highway, the main escape route for the vast majority of the civilians who are now living in neighboring Ingushetia, the report said.

Kharon Askhabov, 35, was trying to leave Chechnya on Monday in a three-car convoy packed with civilians when one vehicle was hit by a shell, killing seven, including two women and four children, he told Human Rights Watch.

"Thousands of displaced persons flee each day'' on this highway, Human Rights Watch noted. "Any firing on this road, which, according to witness testimony, is frequent, runs the risk of striking civilian vehicles."

When refugees reach the Chechen border, soldiers sometimes demand money, Human Rights Watch said.

Askhabov said the Russian troops swore at him and the other survivors in his group, who rummaged through their pockets and handed over 300 rubles (about $12) before they were allowed out of Chechnya.

Refugees in Ingushetia are supposed to receive a loaf of bread and one hot meal a day, but shortages mean they don't always get it, Ingush President Ruslan Aushev said.

Widespread hunger is not expected to be a problem, but "the situation is more than complicated and refugees continue to arrive," Aushev was quoted by Interfax as saying.

The Russian government pledged to set up a two-week food reserve for the refugees, but it has not done so, and flour reserves were sufficient for only a day at a time, Aushev said.

A total of 217,282 refugees have left Chechnya since the Russian campaign began two months ago, the Federal Migration Service said Friday. However, Vladimir Kalamanov, the head of the service, said more and more refugees were returning to Chechnya as the areas under Russian control were stabilized.

But some Chechen refugees have said they returned to check on family members and because the conditions in the refugee camps were inadequate. Russia insists it targets only Chechen militants, and has declared its intention to eliminate all the rebel fighters in the current campaign.

Sadako Ogata, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, on Thursday visited several camps set up for the displaced Chechens, while the thunder of Russian artillery could be heard across the border in Chechnya.

Ogata planned to meet with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials Friday and Saturday to express international concern about conditions for the refugees.