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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Says Leaflets Aimed at Militants

ACHKOI-MARTAN, Chechnya -- Russian planes and artillery pounded the Chechen capital Wednesday, although the military claimed it was allowing civilians to leave Grozny unimpeded.

Trying to deflect international criticism, Russian officials said an ultimatum to Grozny residents to leave by Saturday or face death is aimed at militants - not civilians - but they gave no sign of backing off from the deadline.

Also Wednesday, Russian forces claimed they drove militants out of the key town of Urus-Martan, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the conflict.

The military command said 80 rebels were killed in Wednesday's battles, but gave no figures for Russian casualties.

In Grozny, the Russian military said it is allowing civilians to leave. But Russian troops are firing on cars that try to break past Russian lines, assuming that they carry militants, said Major General Vladimir Shamanov, the chief of the Russian army in western Chechnya.

From overhead, Russian planes and artillery continued to bombard Grozny and surrounding towns. Warplanes and helicopter gunships flew 150 sorties over the previous 24 hours, the military said.

Earlier this week, Russian planes dropped leaflets on Grozny saying that anyone left in the city after Saturday would face an all-out attack.

The ultimatum drew strong international criticism, with U.S. and European leaders calling the plan inhumane and urging Russia to back down.

General Viktor Kazantsev, Russia's military commander in Chechnya, said the leaflets were aimed at the Chechen militants, not civilians. He indicated the deadline was still set for Saturday.

Russian political leaders sought to play down the incident. Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, on a visit to Chechnya, indicated Wednesday that refugees would be given more time to leave Grozny. He said a safe corridor was being established and will remain open as long as it is needed.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the warning was intended to save civilians and criticized Western nations for questioning Russia's motives.

"The statement aims to avert civilian casualties and to lessen the federal losses as much as possible," Putin said.

Officials did not explain how civilians could leave the city when most don't dare leave cellars and shelters because of daily Russian bombardments that have made it dangerous to move about much of the time.

Much of Grozny has been destroyed and the rebels are in bunkers, including Soviet-era nuclear bomb shelters.

Some Russian analysts say the military may be planning to use much more powerful weapons, including fuel-vapor bombs, which can suffocate people in underground shelters. Moscow may want to get civilians out of the city to minimize international protests if such weapons are used, they say.

The Chechen government met Wednesday and appealed for international help in bringing out Grozny's remaining civilians, Interfax reported. There are an estimated 6,000 militants and 15,000 to 50,000 civilians in Grozny.

There was evidence Wednesday that Russian troops were pushing ahead.

The military said it had captured Urus-Martan. Rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov said separatists had withdrawn from the town, 20 kilometers southwest of Grozny, "as part of a plan to regroup for further battle."

A Russian victory in Urus-Martan would tighten the noose around the capital and further restrict rebel supply lines. Interfax quoted Chechen officials as saying Russian forces were pushing deeper into Grozny itself.

Refugees from Urus-Martan in nearby Achkhoi-Martan said that most of the town's 30,000 residents had fled. They said probably only about 1,000 people remained.

The United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe on Wednesday issued a rare joint declaration urging Russia to respect human rights in Chechnya.

"We wish to insist on the obligations of the Russian Federation with regard to international humanitarian law and human rights and we call for strict respect for these rights," the joint communiqu? said.