"They think we are all fighters," said Adam Kepsurkhayev, 24, after border guards told him he could not cross back from the province of Ingushetia, where more than 200,000 Chechens have sought shelter, to his home town in Chechnya.
Under the military's orders, all roads between Chechnya and the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia were closed Wednesday to boys and men.
Vakhid Ashakhanov, 41, said he left Chechnya on Tuesday to drive a friend's daughter to a hospital in Ingushetia. The girl, 16-year-old Zarema Shishkhanova, was suffering from an acute form of tuberculosis she developed after living for several months in a cold basement.
After the unexpected tightening of border regulations, Ashakhanov was cut off from his two teen-age sons, who remained in their home village of Gikaly, just outside Grozny, he said.
"They can't leave (Chechnya), and I can't go back," Ashakhanov said.
The tightened border rules come days after Russia's commander in the region, Viktor Kazantsev, said the "soft-heartedness" of Russian forces was to blame for recent military setbacks, and vowed thorough door-to-door checks of Chechen towns under Russian control.
On Wednesday a spokesman for Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov said brutality toward civilians was eroding the chances that eventual peace talks could stop the fighting.
Selim Abdumuslimov warned that the "the situation (could) spin out of control. Then no talks will be able to bring about an end to partisan war."
The Chechen campaign, which former President Boris Yeltsin described as "flawless" before resigning last month, has run aground since the new year. Russian troops had taken the Chechen lowlands but failed to dislodge rebels from the capital Grozny or mountain bases in the south.
Over the weekend rebels launched raids on Russian-held lowland towns, reviving the tactic of lightning strikes that won them victory in the 1994-96 war in the province.
Russian officials have promised new tactics, but have given few details beyond tighter police checks on Chechen men.
The military setbacks have provided a serious test for Acting President Vladimir Putin, who owes his enormous popularity mainly to previous success in Chechnya. He is the front-runner in a presidential election scheduled to take place in March.
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