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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Safe Passage Promised To Grozny Residents

GROZNY -- Russian warplanes bombed one of the main streets in Grozny and also pounded residential areas Monday as part of a sustained assault on the besieged Chechen capital.

In a fresh sign that the Russian military plans to bombard Grozny into submission, the Russian government said Sunday that it would open a safe passage for desperate civilians to flee the city.

Warplanes have been dropping leaflets on the city advertising the offer, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Koshman said on NTV television.

While Russian officials said the move was intended to reduce civilian casualties, it also appeared designed to mute Western criticism that Russia was harming its own citizens in Chechnya more than the Islamic militants against whom it has been waging a war for nine weeks.

It will also give the Russian military an even freer hand to conduct strikes against the city after Russian authorities conclude that the civilians there have had their chance to leave.

Almost 2,000 people left Chechnya on Sunday, but authorities closed the border post with Ingushetia on Monday because of computer problems that prevented them from properly registering the refugees, Interfax said.

The line of civilians trying to get out of Chechnya was more than a kilometer long at the crossing point, the report said.

Since last week, Russian forces have gradually tightened the noose around Grozny, pummeling the city from the air with fighter jets as well as on the ground with rockets launched from helicopters or artillery batteries. The attacks have been the worst on the Chechen capital since the campaign began, with Grozny's mayor asserting over the weekend that at least 260 people had been killed.

The raid Monday morning hit one of the city's main thoroughfares as well as residential neighborhoods and a car market. Witnesses said there were casualties, but no figures were immediately available.

But the establishment of a humanitarian corridor will not end the risk to civilians.

It is unclear how elderly, infirm or wounded civilians still trapped in the capital will be able to leave. Nor is it clear how many civilians are holed up in basements and apartment houses there.

Television pictures from last week show that the streets are virtually empty, but reports from the region also said hundreds of people had streamed out of the city in recent days. Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships flew almost 100 sorties over Chechnya on Sunday, hitting fortified rebel positions and bridges, and also dropping mines along roads, the military said in Moscow.

Most of the attacks targeted Grozny and the mountains in southern Chechnya, where the rebels still have large numbers of fighters.

Heavy fighting was also reported in Urus-Martan, about 20 kilometers southwest of Grozny, where the Russians are trying to close off a major supply route and encircle the capital.

Early Saturday, Chechen fighters under the command of field commander Salman Raduyev showered Grad rockets on Novogroznensky, some 40 kilometers east of Grozny, and then stormed the town.

There was heavy fighting and the western section of Novogroznensky was in flames Saturday. Raduyev said his fighters had taken 18 Russian soldiers prisoner.

"We met with harsh resistance by the Russians, but with the help of Allah, who is leading us to victory, we have taken this town," Raduyev said in a telephone interview.

Chechnya was set to dominate talks in Moscow later Monday between Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Knut Vollebaek, who hopes to visit the region next month.

Itar-Tass said a human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, Alvaro Gil-Robles, was heading to the North Caucasus on Monday to assess the refugee crisis.

Vollebaek was expected to remind Russia of the commitment it made at the OSCE summit earlier this month to seek a political solution in Chechnya.

Russian officials say they want a political solution, but insist they must first crush the Islamic rebels.