Chechen Jews arrive in Israel as fighting escalates

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NEW YORK — As the borders of the Chechen war expanded this week, Jews from the area continued to find safety in Israel.

A Jewish Agency for Israel refugee camp in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya closed its gates when its occupants left for Israel.

At the same time, in nearby Dagestan, another crisis was under way, with at least one Jew reported to be victimized by the new round of fighting.

Russian troops this week bombarded areas of Dagestan, a republic within the Russian federation just across the border from Chechnya. The bombing came after Chechen separatist rebels refused to surrender dozens of hostages.

The crisis erupted Jan. 9 when a band led by a Chechen secessionist leader took over a hospital with 2,000 people in it in the town of Kizlyar.

Chaim Chesler, the head of the Jewish Agency office in the former Soviet Union, confirmed that at least one hostage was Jewish.

Additional information on the ongoing battle was not available.

In Chechnya itself, separatists have fought Russian forces since December 1994.

As the situation escalated this week, Russian artillery continued to assault positions this week in southern Chechnya.

But the Chechen aliyah continued.

After Chesler "locked by key the gate" of the P'atigorsk refugee camp Tuesday morning, officially closing the site, he boarded an airplane — along with 31 Chechen refugees — bound for Israel.

He spoke via telephone from Herzliya, Israel, just two hours after the plane landed outside Tel Aviv. Already, the new immigrants were at absorption centers.

"It was a very emotional departure," said Chesler, who, with the Jewish Agency, has helped 330 Jewish refugees from the Chechen capital of Grozny immigrate to Israel during the past 14 months. He said he would return to the region in two days.

Some Jews are still in the area. Between 20 and 40 elderly and sick people remain in Grozny, Chesler said. And about 40 people — who are waiting for needed documents — are with family members in other towns. They are scheduled to be flown out to Israel next month.

"That will leave very few Jews," said Chesler, adding, "It's almost the end of the story."

At one time, Grozny had 5,000 to 6,000 Jews, most of them living there for generations.