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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thousands Flee Grozny as Bombs Fall

GROZNY -- Russian airstrikes hammered Chechnya from morning until evening Friday, killing civilians, destroying homes, taking television and radio off the air and wrapping the capital of Grozny in the thick acrid smoke of raging fires.

As thousands fled the capital - either on foot or in cars and trucks loaded down with furniture - the Chechen leadership called for emergency negotiations with Moscow.

Moscow responded with combative rhetoric and continued bombing. Rebel warlord Shamil Basayev - public enemy No. 1 for both Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and Moscow - said Friday on Kavkaz TV, one of the few stations still on the air, that he would set aside his differences with Maskhadov to help him fight Russia, if need be.

It was the second day in a row that Moscow strafed Grozny, in a week that has seen thousands of troops massed on the Russian-Chechen border and media speculation that a Russian ground invasion is imminent.

Maskhadov's office told Interfax that it expected Russian troops to pour over the border later Friday night or in the early hours of Saturday morning. "From 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. [on Saturday] aviation will virtually 'wipe out' Grozny and other Chechen territories," an unnamed official with Maskhadov's office told Interfax, adding that the shelling would be followed by ground troops.

If so, that would be a return to full-scale war with Chechnya - something Russia tried earlier this decade with miserable results. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says there will be no reprise of the 1994-1996 Chechnya war. That war was a national humiliation that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths and a negotiated stalemate that postponed the question of Chechnya's independence.

But Putin and other top officials say Moscow must respond to a wave of terrorist bombings that have destroyed apartment blocks in Moscow and the provinces, killing more than 300 people and provoking public outrage. On Friday, authorities reported finding and defusing a bomb found in a Stavropol building.

There has been little evidence linking any of these bombs to Chechen terrorists. Basayev - who has proudly claimed previous terrorist attacks on Russia, including a 1995 attack on a hospital in the village of Budyonnovsk, southern Russia, which killed more than 100 people and the more recent cat-and-mouse seizures of Dagestani mountain villages - denies having anything to do with the bombings. Basayev says he thinks they are the work not of Chechens, but of the Kremlin or of politically active secret services as a way of provoking chaos and scuttling elections.

Few believe Basayev, however. Russian officials, media and public opinion have pinned blame for the apartment bombings squarely on Chechen separatists like him. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has ordered a residency permit crackdown aimed at forcing Chechens and other non-ethnic Russians out of the city.

Putin, meanwhile, has said the government will bomb anywhere in Chechnya it feels necessary. And if that makes life difficult for the embattled Maskhadov - who is the closest thing Moscow has to an ally in the war-torn, poverty-stricken region - that is too bad.

"We will pursue the terrorists everywhere," Putin said. "You will forgive me, but if we catch them in the toilet, we will rub them out in the outhouse."

Maskhadov, in a telephone interview with Interfax on Friday that was accompanied by the roar of aviation over the Presidential Palace and the thunder of rocket explosions pounding all four districts of Grozny, called the attacks "a waste of effort, resources and time."

"It is possible to stop the catastrophe unfolding in the North Caucasus, saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Russians and Chechens, if the Russian leadership agrees to solve problems by political means, at the negotiating table," he said.

All-out bombing of Chechnya began Thursday, with airstrikes on the Grozny oil refinery and airport and on outlying villages. The bombing continued Friday with a 5 a.m. rocket attack that destroyed a gasoline tanker truck parked on a road between the villages of Samashki and Sernavodsk and two Zhiguli automobiles that were refueling from it.

Eight people were killed. Locals said they were families from the towns of Samashki and Asinovsky who had been heading for a vegetable market. The trunks of both cars were filled with tomatoes they intended to sell. A visit to the site found charred bodies and wreckage.

By about 10:20 a.m., airstrikes were crashing into southern Grozny. They were apparently aimed at the local television and radio center and a mobile-phone relay point.

"The strike was aimed at the television tower, where the transmitters for Grozny Television are located, and also the Russian TV station transmitters for ORT and RTR," Hussein Aliyev, chief of the radio-television transmission station, said in an interview in Grozny on Friday.

Aliyev said radio transmitters were damaged, while the TV transmitters were unharmed, but the entrance to the station was blocked by collapsed wreckage, and at least two employees were trapped in the building. The bombings effectively took television and radio off the air across Chechnya.

Other airstrikes hit the refinery again, and also an oil storage facility in northern Grozny, setting fire to several thousand tons of crude. Authorities in Grozny said the fate of about a dozen employees at the refinery remained unclear, and warned that the republic had no equipment for coping with fires of such scale.

By Friday afternoon, a line of some 5,000 automobiles jammed a road leading to the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. A total of 300,000 Chechens are estimated to have fled their homes, Itar-Tass reported the Chechen Emergencies Ministry as saying.

As refugees streamed out of Grozny, others carried on as usual. Shops and markets remained open, and Grozny residents took evening walks or visited with neighbors.

Normal life is soon to get harder than ever. Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko announced Friday that Russia was cutting off all pension payments to citizens on Chechen territory, and the Chechen government announced that Russia was cutting off gas supplies.

Earlier this month - when Basayev's band invaded Dagestan and Russian retaliatory airstrikes began to wander across the border into Chechnya - Maskhadov ordered a general mobilization.

This week - as Russian troops massed on the border, and then bombs began to hit Grozny - Maskhadov issued secret orders to field commanders across the province on how to repel a ground invasion.

"If [Russian forces] come in, we can quite easily deal with them," Chechen Defense Minister Magomed Khambiyev said on Thursday on local television. That was echoed by Maskhadov, who said, "We do not intend, as in 1996, to meet the aggressor in the center of Grozny. We are going to throw the enemy back at the border."