Civilians in Chechnya have fled the towns of Shatoi, Urus Martan, and Achkoi Martan under daily bombardment. Upon arrival at the border, many were forced to pay bribes to Russian soldiers in order to cross into neighboring Ingushetia.

In a letter to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, who is scheduled to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday, Human Rights Watch has asked her to urge the Russian government to protect fleeing civilians.

In the southern part of Chechnya, heavy bombing of civilian areas, including residences, continues. "People are afraid even to go out of their houses to get firewood during the day," said "Ramazan," age 27. He recounted daily shelling and bombing of Shatoi, a town approximately 40 miles south of Grozny. On November 7, he witnessed rocket attacks on his street, Naberezhnaia, at 3:45 p.m. The neighboring streets of Argunskaia, Sadovaia, and Bazarnaia were also hit. Three or four planes flew overhead and dropped bombs. Two of "Ramazan's" neighbors went out into a nearby wooded area to gather fuel and were killed: Mula Shokhtemirov, and Maka Dadaeva. This information was confirmed in a separate interview with another resident of Shatoi, Said Khajimuradov, 37. According to him, 13 were wounded, six seriously.

According to Human Rights Watch research, there may have been a legitimate military target in the area. Khajimuradov described how on November 11 he saw a rocket hit the district police station, which had a satellite antenna -- highly unusual equipment for a provincial police station. On November 11 at 8 a.m., "Ramazan" (not the man's true name) witnessed small bomblets hit two homes on Naberezhnaia street, killing Anzor Akhmadov, 25, and Sultan Iangulbaev, 50. Other witnesses confirmed seeing unexploded bomblets in Shatoi during the last days of October. Lecha, a 38-year-old man from the mountain hamlet of Itum-Kale, twelve miles south of Shatoi, also described in detail the bombing of the village, especially at the end of October, when Mabary Suleimanov, Abdurashid Dadaev, and Roza Mursazalieva were killed.

Bombings have also continued in western Chechnya. Achkoi Martan, approximately 12 miles southwest of Grozny, has endured heavy shelling. Eyewitnesses recounted civilian casualties on November 4, 7, and 8 in residential areas of the town. In most cases, residents were killed as they left their homes in search of food or fuel. Among the victims on November 7 were Zura Dataeva, her mother Palada Dataeva, son Aslan Dataev, and young daughter. "Ruslan" (not the man's true name) reported that on the morning of November 15, as he and his family fled Urus Martan, a neighboring home in the north of the town was hit, killing an elderly man and a woman. His home was also hit by what he believed was a Grad missile, which he distinguished by its distinctive sound. He reported that for two weeks Urus Martan has been under heavy fire, with breaks only during the extremely cold weather from November 9-11.

Civilians fleeing the bombing have also suffered casualties. Routes to safety from besieged towns remain effectively closed due to artillery and air bombardment. Particularly dangerous is a stretch of the Baku-Rostov highway—the principal artery crossing east-west through Chechnya to the Ingush border—that passes southwest of Grozny. "Ramazan" left Shatoi on November 16 at 3:00 a.m. in a van with 15 people. At approximately 7:00 a.m., on the Baku-Rostov highway outside the town of Kulary, five shots rang out towards their vehicle from a Russian position on the left side of the road. One hit the vehicle, and seriously wounded 4-year- old Eliza Khabaeva. According to her father Isa, 38, she is now in the intensive care ward of Sunzhenskaia district hospital in Sleptsovsk.

Kharon Askhabov, 35, said that he was unaware of any humanitarian corridor out of Urus Martan. He left on November 15 at 7:00 a.m. in a convoy of three cars with relatives. On the Baku-Rostov highway outside of Achkoi Martan, one of the cars was hit by a shell, and the seven passengers were killed: an old man, two women, and four children. "Ruslan" from Urus Martan related that he saw two empty cars, one of them burning, the other with holes from shrapnel on the Baku-Rostov highway close to Zakan-Iurt on November 15. The passengers had presumably fled.

Human Rights Watch notes that thousands of displaced persons flee each day on the Rostov-Baku highway. Any firing on this road, which, according to witness testimony, is frequent, runs the risk of striking civilian vehicles, endangering the lives of displaced persons. Human Rights Watch calls on the United Federal Forces to take all feasible measures to protect noncombatants fleeing for safety, including declaring periodic cease-fires.

Human Rights Watch's letter to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees urged her to seek assurances from Prime Minister Putin that Russian forces would protect fleeing civilians from attacks; that corrupt border police would be disciplined; and that humanitarian organizations would have unfettered access to Chechnya, including areas under Russian control.

Reaching the border is not the last hurdle the displaced must face before safety. Kharon Askhabov left Urus Martan on November 15. At the second control point after Assinovskii, federal soldiers demanded money from him, detaining him for forty minutes. When he answered that he had no money, they swore at him and threatened, "If you don't give us some [money], you'll be last in this line, or you won't get across at all." He replied that in his car there were three women and seven children. They swore at him again. He had only 60 rubles for gasoline (approximately U.S.$2). The women in his car gathered 300 rubles so that the soldiers would let him through. Askhabov, who had left Ingushetia the day before to return to Chechnya to bring his family to safety, had already been forced to pay 400 rubles in order to enter Chechnya. Another displaced person interviewed at the Chechen-Ingush border recounted that on November 15, soldiers at the border demanded 100 rubles, ostensibly a fine for riding his motorcycle without a helmet.