Feb 14 (AFP)
Russia fortified its positions in the Argun gorge on Monday claiming the Chechens had suffered heavy losses after a weeklong bombing campaign to destroy the last rebel strongholds in the southern mountains.
Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said that federal forces �are building up in the Argun sector� and federal officials said Russian warplanes were �concentrating� on the key gorge, the ITAR-TASS news agency said Monday.
Sergeyev added that the Vedeno gorge was under federal control and troops were blocking roadways in the northern foothills leading to the gorge on Monday, ITAR-TASS said.
The Russians are mounting a pincer movement against the 7,000-8,000 Chechen fighters who retreated into mountain strongholds after the fall of Grozny on February 6 and were centered in the Shatoi region.
Moscow is said to have poured 50,000 men into the battle for the mountains of the total 93,000 involved in operations in Chechnya.
After a week of heavy bombing in the southern mountains and southwest of Grozny, Russia claimed to have killed some 600 Chechen rebels, Russia�s North Caucasus headquarters told the Russian AVN military news agency.
The figure could not be independently verified.
Russia strengthened its positions near two villages in the Argun gorge � a key access route to the southern mountains. The villages are located on either side of the rebel-controlled Shatoi region.
Troops were massing near Itum-Kale, a rebel stronghold which federal paratroops captured on Thursday, and Duba-Yurt, at the gorge�s northern entrance, a Russian military spokesman said.
In Duba-Yurt, soldiers were guarding the entrance to keep Chechen rebels from returning to the northern plains.
�We fear that the rebels have descended to the plains and will hide as civilians,� a Russian officer who gave his name as Sergei told AFP.
Shooting is heard every night near Russian positions in the foothills north of Duba-Yurt, the Russian officer said.
�The partisan war already has been unleashed and is going on,� he said, referring to reports on Friday that Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov had declared the start of a partisan war throughout the rebel republic.
On Saturday, Maskhadov said the Chechens would fight a �regular war� against the Russians.
Russian air force commander Anatoly Kornukov said Russian warplanes continued to drop 1.5-tonne bombs in the mountainous southern region.
�There is no other way, because to take out the rebels from caves and (their) lairs is very difficult,� ITAR-TASS quoted Kornukov as saying.
Earlier Monday, the AVN military news agency had quoted a Russian official as saying the 1.5-tonne bombs were not being employed in the region.
Russian military officials announced on Wednesday that they had used the heavier bombs for the first time since the air raids started against Chechnya on September 5.
Russia had previously used bombs of up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds).
Russian warplanes on Monday flew some 100 sorties in a 24-hour period, AVN quoted the Russian official as saying.
Russian Su-24 and Su-25 warplanes and Mi-24 gunship helicopters carried out the bombing, which was lighter than last week�s campaign in the region.
Among objects destroyed were some 20 rebel �support points,� two Zenith rocket installations, one rebel headquarters and two communications centers, Russian headquarters told AVN.
LONDON, Feb 14 (BBC)
More than 70 passengers and crew from the hijacked Afghan airliner which landed in Britain a week ago have arrived in southern Afghanistan.
Taleban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil greeted the passengers on the airport tarmac after their arrival in the Afghan city of Kandahar.
The Taleban leadership kept its promise to provide a warm welcome by giving gifts of turbans and embroidery to those who walked off the jet.
The Taleban regime says all those returning will be treated well
They were also given a hot meal inside the airport.
A BBC correspondent in Kandahar said the passengers and crew were happy to be back in Afghanistan.
They denounced the hijackers and a number of passengers who they said had been part of the hijack plot all along, in a bid to claim political asylum in the West.
Some of the passengers were friends and relatives of the hijackers, they said.
Feb 6-Plane hijacked
Feb 7-Plane lands in London
Feb 10-Hijack over
Feb 14 Hostages fly home
Of the more than 80 who remain in the UK, British police have charged 13 men - Afghan nationals between the ages of 18 and 36 - with hijacking offences.
They are expected to appear in court in Southend, Essex, later on Monday. Nine others who were arrested will not face charges.
The returning passengers were also met on arrival in Kandahar by an official from the International Organisation for Migration, who will make sure they have enough money to continue their journeys home.
There were few relatives at the airport, because of its distance from the capital.
Kandahar is two days� drive from Kabul, where the plane set off, and four days from its intended destination, the town of Mazaar-e-Sharif.
The BBC�s correspondent says relatives still don�t know who is coming home - whether their family members are on the flight from Britain, if they�ve asked for political asylum, or if they are the hijackers.
At first, only 17 of the former hostages said they wanted to return home but after talking to immigration officials more decided to leave.
A BBC correspondent said all those flying home had signed forms stating that they were happy to return to Afghanistan.
More than 70 former hostages remain at a fire service college in Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, where they are being questioned by immigration officials.
Homeward bound: Two of the fomer hostages on their way to Brize Norton
The UK Government has denied passengers are being put under pressure not to claim asylum. Officially, 74 have requested asylum in the UK so far.
But UK Home Secretary Jack Straw has admitted he faces a worrying dilemma.
�On the one hand we have great sympathy for those who have a genuine and well founded fear of persecution arising from political instability in the state from which they come,� he said.
�On the other hand, we cannot possibly be in a circumstance where it appears that we are encouraging the international terrorist crime of hijack.�
Britain has approached Pakistan and Russia, which have large Afghan communities, to take in some of the former hostages.
Afghanistan�s Taleban rulers have warned the UK that granting asylum will encourage terrorism.
The hijacking began a week ago, when an Ariana Airlines Boeing 727 on an internal Afghanistan flight was forced to divert to London.
It ended peacefully on Thursday when the hijackers gave themselves up.
All Over the Globe is published by IPA House.
© 1998 IPA House. All Rights Reserved.