Russia Pounds Chechnya

As Russian warplanes blasted targets in ChechnyaÂ's capital Grozny for a fifth straight day, President Boris Yeltsin demanded ironclad guarantees that his military would cut off Islamic militants in the breakaway republic.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov claimed Monday that 300 people had been killed in the Russian airstrikes, which targeted the territoryÂ's oil infrastructure. The figure could not be independently confirmed, but pictures from the region showed oil installations reduced to a charred mass.

The bombing is aimed at weakening Islamic militants who twice invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan in recent weeks and have their main bases in Chechnya. Russia also blames the militants for the recent bombings of four apartment buildings in Moscow and other cities that killed some 300 people.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev Monday said the bombing of Chechnya would continue Â"as long as the last bandit is not destroyed,Â" according to the Interfax news agency.

Yeltsin told Russia's chief border guard, Konstantin Totsky, to close off permeable national frontiers.

Â"Boris Nikolayevich (Yeltsin) placed great emphasis on 100 percent firm guarantees that emissaries and accomplices of the armed groups not be allowed into Russian territoryÂ" said Totsky. Â"The entry of arms and ammunition was also deemed unacceptable.Â"

Efforts were being intensified, Totsky said, to seal off entry points to Chechnya from other parts of Russia and from the former Soviet republic of Georgia on its southern border.

MoscowÂ's increasingly hard-line stance has raised fears of a possible ground invasion of Chechnya, despite a disastrous 1994-96 war in which Russian troops were defeated by a much smaller guerrilla force. Chechnya has run its own affairs since winning de facto independence in 1996, but its official status remains murky.

Sergeyev said Sunday that he could not rule out the possibility of launching ground operations in Chechnya.

But Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tried to play down fears that there would be a repeat of the war, in which Russia often sent poorly trained troops into battle. Putin said Russia would rely on air raids to knock out infrastructure and Â"patiently, methodically destroy (the militants) from the air.Â"

After emerging from talks Monday with Yeltsin, Putin said that no meeting would take place with Maskhadov until the Chechen leader denounces terrorism in his republic and until Moscow is sure the militants can't use a meeting to their advantage.

Maskhadov, who claims his government is not connected to the militants, said in a televised address Sunday that he was Â"ready for any political dialogue with the Russian leadership in order to save the lives of fellow countrymen,Â" according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Meanwhile, Chechens continued to try to flee the bombing by heading west, to the republic of Ingushetia. Afer some 40,000 fled, Ingushetian authorities closed the border Sunday. On the other side of the border, Chechen authorities set up tents for some of the trapped civilians and brought piles of firewood.

But others stayed, and about 4,000 people held a rally in downtown Grozny Monday to demand an end to the bombing.

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