Russian tanks and artillery pounded Chechnya on Friday after an air attack that took villagers by surprise and reportedly killed dozens.
In Elistanzhi, a village in the mountains near the separatist republic’s southern border, the streets were filled with sobbing Friday as villagers collected the remains of the victims of the Russian air attack, eyewitnesses said.
Villagers said Russian planes attacked Elistanzhi, 30 miles southeast of Grozny, the Chechen capital, on Thursday during midday Muslim prayers and kept up the bombardment for more than two hours.
Village administrator Ismail Dagayev said 32 people were killed--including a family of eight--60 others injured and 200 houses destroyed.
The Russian military declined to comment on the claims Friday.
Russia has said that its attacks on Chechnya are aimed solely at Islamic militants who twice invaded the neighboring republic of Dagestan this summer and who are blamed for a series of recent apartment explosions in Russia that killed more than 300 people.
But Chechen officials contend that hundreds of civilians have been killed, and Elistanzhi residents echoed the complaints, saying the village never housed militants.
“We just live here, growing potatoes, corn and tobacco,” village mullah Yusup Khadzhi said.
The air attack came after 40 people were reportedly killed Tuesday when a Russian tank fired on a bus crowded with civilians trying to flee Chechnya.
The sounds of heavy shelling were heard Friday near villages along the western border with the republic of Ingushetia as Russian forces established positions inside Chechnya.
Russia says it wants a security zone around Chechnya to keep militants from infiltrating neighboring regions. Russian troops occupy the northern third of the republic.
In the 1994-96 war in Chechnya, rebel fighters fought the vast Russian army to a humiliating standstill. Since then, the republic remained a part of Russia despite winning de facto independence.