On the eve of a possible assault against the Chechen capital of Grozny, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said today he recently had met with envoys representing Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, but the talks had gone nowhere.

Putin's remarks to reporters appeared to be designed to soften Western criticism of the ultimatum delivered to Chechen rebels and civilians this week that they must flee Grozny by Saturday or be "destroyed." Russian military and political officials continued to give conflicting signals about whether the planned, stepped-up offensive against the capital is about to commence.

President Clinton and European Union leaders, meeting today in Helsinki, condemned the threat to Grozny. The EU also said it would withhold financial assistance and trade cooperation if the bombing doesn't stop.

"It can't go on like this," said Chris Patten, EU commissioner of external affairs. "It's fair to say the European Union has done today as much or more than anyone else."

A new challenge to the Russian offensive was also raised at home when Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who leads a bloc competing in the upcoming parliamentary elections, denounced the ultimatum.

"Why have we started a war against people again? The war against people has absolutely no prospect. If the first step is made in the war against people, it can be said that, in the end, it will undoubtedly be lost," Luzhkov declared at a conference on ethnic movements.

In recent months, Luzhkov has generally supported the military offensive against the breakaway region. His comment today set off alarms in the Kremlin, which rushed to condemn him.

In a statement, the war public relations office denounced Luzhkov for making "unsubstantiated claims" that "are not worthy of a politician who until recently was aspiring to the post of president of Russia."

Meanwhile, tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who has had close ties to the Chechen leadership, said the time has come for negotiations with Maskhadov. "I believe military pressure in Chechnya has played its positive role," he said, suggesting that the rebels are no longer seeking independence but are merely trying to survive.

Interior Minister Vladimir Rushaylo said today during a meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, that a checkpoint was opened for refugees to leave Grozny. "We do not foresee the bombing of the city in the days ahead if things go like this," he said.

Sergei Shoigu, minister of emergency situations whose political party Putin has endorsed in the upcoming election, said he was ready to meet Chechen leaders to organize an evacuation of civilians. "I am ready to meet anyone--the devil, Maskhadov . . . provided it produces results and they let civilians--old people, women and children--leave Grozny," he said.

However, Bislan Gantamirov, the one-time mayor of Grozny and a paramilitary chief backed by Moscow, told reporters his fighters and Russian troops could capture the capital before Dec. 20. He said he already had discussed the plan of attack with Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the Russian general staff.

A Chechen deputy prime minister, Kazbek Makhashev, told the Interfax news agency in Grozny that some civilians have not fled the capital because of problems caused by the bombing and lack of transportation. "Most of those remaining in Grozny are old people who suffer from hypothermia, malnutrition and lack of medicine," he said. "They are incapable of walking 100 meters, let alone the 20 kilometers which separate them from Pervomaiskaya," the checkpoint Russia has said would be open.

Putin's statement about talks with the Chechens came as he left Moscow for a trip to Uzbekistan, and left many questions unanswered. Russian officials have said they would not negotiate with the Chechen leaders, but Putin said Maskhadov's emissaries "appear in Moscow regularly." He said he had met eight or nine days ago with one of his deputy premiers from Grozny. Both sides outlined their positions, he said, and the emissary returned home. Another meeting was held Thursday.

Correspondent Anne Swardson in Helsinki contributed to this report.