Russia backed away from threats to launch an all-out assault on the capital of Chechnya today, saying it had dropped no bombs on Grozny but continuing to warn civilians to flee.
The military had given Grozny residents an ultimatum to leave the city by today or be "destroyed," but that warning was met with intense international criticism. Today in Moscow, Gen. Valery Manilov, deputy chief of the general staff, reiterated Russia's intent to capture the city. He said, however, that no massive strikes or frontal ground assault would be launched.
"As soon as the necessary conditions are created for action in Grozny itself, the safety of civilians and their unrestricted exodus from Grozny . . . unorthodox action will be taken . . . to ensure the liberation of Grozny from bandits and terrorists without a frontal storm or massive strikes," he said. He did not specify what "unorthodox action" meant.
While attention was focused on Grozny, officials said Russia stepped up its offensive in southern Chechnya, where both armed rebels and tens of thousands of civilians have fled.
Russian generals have repeatedly pledged to take back Grozny, from which Moscow's forces were expelled in 1996 during the first Chechen war. This time, they have employed airstrikes and artillery to bomb the city for more than two months. Reports of widespread destruction and harm to civilians have prompted an international outcry and put President Boris Yeltsin's government on the defensive.
In Helsinki today, European Union leaders condemned Russia's campaign in Chechnya, particularly the ultimatum for Grozny residents. They also said the EU would protest Moscow's actions by diverting some funds intended to support Russia's economy to humanitarian causes.
Russian forces remained concentrated around Grozny today, but the only thing dropped on the city were leaflets urging residents to leave, according to Russian officials. The military halted all airstrikes against Grozny until midnight on Sunday, the Interfax news agency reported.
Estimates of the number of civilians left in Grozny vary considerably. Russian military officials put the number at 12,000, but the president of the neighboring region of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, put the figure at 25,000, and Chechen officials said up to 40,000 remain.
In an apparent effort to show goodwill toward civilians, Russian officials opened a new checkpoint for refugees near Alkhan-Yurt, just southwest of Grozny, on the road west to Ingushetia.
Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to the checkpoint to greet refugees, but none showed up. Buses ready to ferry civilians to Ingushetia stood idle, and Russian officials blamed Chechen guerrillas for forcing civilians to stay in the capital.
The opening of the Alkhan-Yurt checkpoint coincided with a report from Human Rights Watch that Russian troops had looted homes in the hamlet and killed civilians who tried to stop them.
"Russian troops in Alkhan-Yurt are killing civilians and looting their property with what appears to be complete impunity," said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "It's a shocking case of Russian forces' intentional violation of international law."
According to three witnesses, Russian troops invaded the village on Dec. 1, after three days of bombing. Soldiers then looted homes and executed villagers who tried to intervene, they said. One witness said that when one victim asked them to stop, "they shot him and threw his body in the house on fire."
A villager also told the New York-based human rights organization that residents now have to pay bribes of up to $5 to the Russians to enter Alkhan-Yurt, and $15 to get out.
Here in Mozdok, the main staging area for the war and site of a major Russian military air base, Su-24 and Su-25 bombers took off throughout the day. Russian officials said their main target was the Argun Gorge, along which the main road south to Georgia passes. They said that a convoy carrying Chechen military commanders was hit.
Officials also said troops are set to enter Chechnya from the neighboring region of Dagestan.
CAPTION: A Russian soldier at a border post guards a truck of Chechen refugees, who are trying to return home despite continued fighting.