Russia launched fresh air strikes today against Islamic militants it says are hiding in breakaway Chechnya, killing at least seven civilians and setting oil installations ablaze in the capital Grozny. The neighbouring region of Ingushetia was reported to have appealed for United Nations aid to deal with tens of thousands of refugees and a Western diplomat said the U.N. was concerned.

The Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov has called for an urgent meeting with President Boris Yeltsin to halt Russia's air strikes and avert a ground attack against his breakaway region. Mr Maskhadov said that at least 300 civilians had been killed in the Chechnya capital Grozny in the past four days of Russian bombing. But the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said a meeting would take place only when Russia decided it would be useful.

Mr Putin has accused Chechnya of offering a safe haven to Islamic militants opposed to Russian rule in the North Caucasus region. Moscow also accuses Chechen guerrillas of involvement in a series of bomb blasts in Russia this month which killed nearly 300 people.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze denied today that men and weapons were crossing his country's borders to aid rebels in Russia's breakaway Chechnya region and said he was ready to accept Chechen refugees. Some Russian politicians have said weapons are seeping through Georgia's border to Islamic rebels led by Chechen warlords.