Acting President Vladimir Putin appealed today for Western understanding of Russia's military offensive in breakaway Chechnya, adopting a new, softer line in talks with a top European official.

As the two sides talked, shells and bombs crashed into Grozny, in what some commanders called the decisive phase of its campaign to gain control of the Chechen capital, where up to 40,000 civilians have taken shelter in basements with little food.

Putin, whose tough stance on Chechnya has made him Russia's most popular politician, hosted a delegation from the 40-nation Council of Europe in the first talks on Chechnya with the West since he became acting president after Boris Yeltsin's New Year's Eve resignation.

"We understand the concern of the international community over the events in the North Caucasus," Putin told David Russell-Johnston, president of the council's parliamentary delegation, during a meeting with other top Russian officials. "But we want the international community to show an understanding of our position, by relying on facts about the real situation from truthful information and not from propaganda," Putin said in televised comments.

Russell-Johnston reiterated demands for a halt to the four-month campaign in Chechnya, but weakened an earlier threat that Russia could face expulsion from the Council of Europe if it persisted with the offensive.

"We expressed the views that have already been set out by the assembly in resolutions concerning a cease-fire, concerning negotiations, concerning the free movement of refugees and access to humanitarian organizations," Russell-Johnston told reporters after meeting Yegor Stroyev, chairman of the upper house of Russia's parliament.

Russell-Johnston later said that Putin had shown flexibility. Putin "said he was open to suggestions for a change in his policy from the Council of Europe," Russell-Johnston told reporters. He said Putin had also signaled he would accept "an international presence . . . in Ingushetia and parts of Chechnya" to facilitate the flow of information to the media.