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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shoigu Tells Refugees to Head Home

SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Southern Russia -- Faced with a growing refugee crisis, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu on Friday urged Chechen civilians to return to the war-torn region, promising that they would be protected by Russian troops.

Shoigu pledged that "the government will guarantee full security to people who return to liberated Chechen villages," Itar-Tass reported.

Russia says its war in Chechnya is intended to drive out terrorists, bandits and warlords who have made the separatist region ungovernable.

"Our actions in connection with Chechen and other territories where there are manifestations of terrorism are directed exclusively at suppressing terrorists, not at achieving some political goals," Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Friday, Interfax reported.

However, there have been high civilian casualties, and more than 200,000 civilians have fled the territory altogether since Russia began airstrikes in early September.

Shoigu said the Russian government was planning to set up well-protected camps for civilians in the northern third of Chechnya, which the Russian army controls. He said 30,000 people could already be accommodated and urged refugees to return to Russian-controlled parts of Chechnya.

But civilians massed on the border said they would not stay in Chechnya anymore, no matter who was in control.

"It's impossible to stay in the village; you can't let your cow out," said Tatyana Durchiyeva, from the village of Arshty. "The [Russian] soldiers steal everything ... they drink vodka and trample our vegetable plots with their tanks."

Thousands of refugees have stood on the border with Ingushetia since the weekend, the military letting just tiny groups pass before Wednesday when the corridor finally started working.

Ali Dudarov, head of the Ingush border guards service, said 2,065 people had been allowed to cross into Ingushetia on Thursday. About 1,200 more crossed by midday Friday, according to officials on the border.

When Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo visited the border and refugee camp in Sleptsovskaya on Friday, many people yelled insults at him. "You should have ... killed us back there," one exasperated woman shouted.

Russian aircraft continued to pummel Chechen positions early Friday. Federal forces claimed to have killed up to 120 rebels and destroyed 20 vehicles and other targets.

Russian forces are dug into heights about 5 kilometers north of Grozny, the Defense Ministry said Friday. Mumadi Saidayev, the Chechen military chief of staff, said the Russian forces were pulling armor and other heavy weapons onto the ridge, but did not appear to be moving closer to Grozny.

An Associated Press reporter saw Russian planes dropping large, white, egg-like containers over the forested hills just south of the village of Alkhazurovo, 20 kilometers south of Grozny. The bombs exploded only hours later.

Saidayev said the objects apparently were delayed action bombs, which he said the Russians were using to mine highways and forest roads to hamper Chechen fighters' movement.

He said the Russians were also using cassette bombs camouflaged as toys, tree branches, and other harmless objects.

"These treacherous weapons pose little danger to fighters, who know how to distinguish them. It's civilians who are usually hurt by them," Saidayev said.

The Defense Ministry issued new casualty figures for its troops on Friday. Colonel General Valery Manilov, first deputy head of the General Staff, said 142 army soldiers had been killed and 365 injured in Chechnya, Interfax reported. Previous reports have said 10 Interior Ministry troops also have died.

Russia is widely believed to understate its losses.

Unlike the Chechen war of 1994-96, the current Chechnya campaign appears to have broad support among the Russians. The Chechen militants twice invaded Dagestan this summer and are blamed for a series of apartment bombings that killed some 300 people in Russia in September.