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Human Rights Watch strongly condemned Russia's ultimatum to the inhabitants of Grozny, in which civilians have been told to abandon the city or be "exterminated" as "bandits."

Tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped in Grozny, and Human Rights Watch warned that a Russian offensive on the city could lead to a massive loss of civilian life.

"We welcome the Russian government's decision to let civilians leave Grozny before it steps up the military campaign, but the opportunity to leave must be real," said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "To announce that those who remain will be considered terrorists is not acceptable under any circumstances. Our research indicates clearly that many of those who remain in Grozny are the injured, elderly, infirm, or people who are too afraid to leave their homes."

Human Rights Watch researchers in neighboring Ingushetia have documented numerous incidents in which Russian airplanes have fired on civilians trying to flee Grozny and neighboring towns. According to two witnesses, at about 2 p.m on December 2, Russian airplanes fired on a four-vehicle convoy near the town of Goyty, directly hitting and killing all the passengers in one Niva passenger jeep, as well as two other women traveling in a second car. Zelimkhan, a seventeen-year-old inhabitant of Goyty who declined to his family name, watched the Russian planes as they bombed the cars: "I saw two planes fire many shots. They would circle, then fire, circle again, and fire again." Zelimkhan rushed to help the victims, and he and a friend received shrapnel wounds when one of the planes fired repeatedly at them.

During a second incident near Goyty around the same time, Ali Dadashev, aged forty-four, said he was severely injured after being bombed by a Russian airplane. He said that when two men came to help him to safety, Russian planes fired again at the group, killing one of the rescuers and injuring the other.

A third attack on civilian vehicles traveling near Goyty took place the next day, on December 3. Kant, a forty-eight-year old man who declined to give his last name, told Human Rights Watch that he left Grozny on foot in the early morning of December 3, because the bus on the Grozny-Goyty road had been fired upon the day before and had therefore stopped traveling the route. He noticed a passenger vehicle passing by (again a Niva jeep), and later saw the same vehicle near Goyty, where it had been fired upon and abandoned. Kant told Human Rights Watch that the road between Goyty and Grozny had been closed by Russian troops on December 2, shutting off one of the few remaining bread supply routes to the capital.

"For weeks, civilians attempting to flee the fighting in Chechnya have faced a dangerous journey," said Cartner. "Will the people trapped in Grozny trust Russia's promises of safe exit routes? These bombardments make it highly unlikely."

On December 6, Russian military forces dropped leaflets on the besieged capital, telling civilians to leave Grozny before December 11 "using all possible ways," and warning that "those staying in the city will be regarded as terrorists and bandits. They will be destroyed by artillery and air force. There will be no more talks. Everyone who fails to leave the city will be destroyed."

The Russian forces claim to have created a safe corridor out of Grozny through the town of Pervomaiskaya, but the Russian television channel ORT reported that by mid-Tuesday, not a single resident of Grozny had made it to Pervomaiskaya. It is unclear whether many Grozny residents are aware of the ultimatum, as most have been pinned down in their basements for weeks under aircraft and artillery fire which reportedly continued in the city on Tuesday.

Human Rights Watch expressed skepticism about the safety and efficiency of the proposed safe corridor out of Grozny and voiced concern that the announcement of a safe corridor may be intended more to silence critics of Russian's military campaign than to provide a genuinely safe departure for civilians. Russian military officials, in interviews with the Russian and foreign media, could not explain why civilians have not yet begun to flow through the northern exit route.

As documented in previous Human Rights Watch press releases, the humanitarian situation in Grozny is rapidly deteriorating, with no functioning hospitals, electricity, running water, gas, or heating since the beginning of November, and dwindling food supplies (See Human Rights Watch release, "Civilians in Grozny Facing Death, Possible Starvation," December 6, 1999).

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