Russian artillery and jet bombers pounded more towns and villages in Chechnya today, and witnesses reported scores of civilian deaths.
The most severe attack occurred at Serzhen-Yurt, 20 miles southeast of the regional capital, Grozny. A Reuters television cameraman said he attended the funeral of 27 victims killed during the bombing at dawn.
Chechen officials, who repeated their call for peace talks with Russia, reported bombardments in areas virtually surrounding the capital. Russian spokesmen denied some, but not all, of the reports.
The bombings appear to be part of Russia's preparations for an unspecified second phase of the invasion. The first concluded more than a week ago with the Russian blitz through northern Chechnya to the Terek River. Although some Russian officials spoke of holding that line and establishing a buffer zone along the river and the western and eastern frontiers of Chechnya, Russian troops continue to advance toward Grozny, which is south of the river.
Political leaders in Moscow have stopped short of ordering a march on Grozny, yet field generals speak more openly of taking the capital. They said that Chechnya won de facto independence three years ago because skittish politicians did not let the army do its job.
One television station broadcast interviews with infantrymen who pledged to "finish off" the Chechens. "Everything will be okay if we are not hindered," said one.
"If we are pulled back," warned another, "they [the Chechens] will regain their strength and this muddle will begin again."
An assault on Grozny would essentially turn the battle against "terrorist formations" into a war to subdue all of the region. The war has begun to strain relations with the West, as alarm spreads over a rising civilian death toll. Chechen officials said 140 civilians died in an explosion Friday at a Grozny market. Russian artillery and aircraft have indiscriminately bombed numerous towns and hamlets.
Last week in Helsinki, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin assured West European leaders that he favored negotiations to end the war and secure Russia against incursions by armed Islamic militants. However, he asserted that no one controlled enough of Chechnya to ensure successful talks, least of all the Chechen government of Aslan Maskhadov.
Putin hinted that he was looking to deal with opponents of Maskhadov inside Chechnya. He said the breakaway region is divided into "separate territories headed by so-called field commanders."
"We will have to assess all that, select those people who don't have blood on their hands and work with them," he said.