NAZRAN, Russia, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Russian warplanes bombed rebels in gorges in southern Chechnya on Thursday and troops pressed their campaign to take the fighters' Shatoi stronghold.
Acting President Vladimir Putin vowed no let up in the military operation until the "terrorists" had been crushed but also said the Chechnya crisis required a political solution.
The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Alvaro Gil-Robles, arrived in Moscow to raise with senior officials reports of summary executions, torture and rape allegedly committed by Russian soldiers in Chechnya.
Interfax news agency quoted military sources as saying warplanes had conducted 120 sorties in the past 24 hours, destroying an air defence installation and other facilities.
The Russian raids were concentrated on the Vedeno and Argun gorges, where thousands of rebels are holed up after being driven south by the Russian offensive.
Itar-Tass news agency said Russia had already broken up the centralised rebel command in the village of Shatoi.
The rebels' Internet site Kavkaz.org confirmed that Russian troops were advancing on Shatoi but said the separatist fighters were putting up fierce resistance.
Refugees accuse Russians of atrocities
Chechnya's border with the Russian region of Ingushetia, home to about 200,000 refugees, was due to reopen on Friday after being closed this week over fears of terrorist attacks.
Despite the closure, hundreds of Chechens flocked to one checkpoint on Thursday in search of information about missing relatives. People from throughout Chechnya come to the border crossing to post whatever details they have on a notice board.
Yasita Abulkhanova, 44, who fled the Chechen capital Grozny after it had been taken by the army this month, said she had witnessed executions of civilians by Russian soldiers on February 5 in the Aldi district of the ruined city.
"Very many people were killed. More than 100 in a single day. There were three or four dead in each home," she said, adding that soldiers started firing at people failing to give them sums of money they were demanding.
"My father, two cousins and our neighbour, Suleyman Tosuyev, are all buried in a neighbour's courtyard."
Her story could not be independently confirmed but was in keeping with charges made on Wednesday by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch organisation, which accused Russian servicemen of killing at least 50 civilians in Grozny.
Russia denies its troops have committed atrocities.
Gil-Robles is expected to meet Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Friday to discuss a possible trip to Chechnya. Ivanov has accused the West of waging an information war against Moscow.
Russia sees campaign winding down
Russian leaders have said they expect the military campaign against Chechen separatists to end next month, but the rebels have vowed to wage an indefinite partisan war.
Interfax quoted Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev as saying the operation would be completed by the time "the snows melt".
Wrapping up the war before Russia's March 26 presidential election would give a boost to Putin's chances. He is already the clear frontrunner in the race to replace Boris Yeltsin.
Speaking on Baltika radio in Russia's second city St Petersburg, Putin reiterated his main objectives in Chechnya.
"We will definitely carry the military operation through to the end. We shall destroy the terrorists," he said.
But he added: "With the Chechen people, we shall resolve all problems, whatever their nature -- social, economic or political -- only by peaceful means, at the negotiating table."
Putin said there were "forces" in Chechnya ready to cooperate with Russia to help rebuild the region.
In Moscow, the speaker of the State Duma Gennady Seleznyov said the lower house of parliament would consider on Friday Putin's request to prolong an amnesty for rebels wanting to lay down their arms. The Duma is expected to extend the amnesty.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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