The intensity of the Russian bombardment suggests that the commanders are threatening the heaviest use of artillery and air power against a European city since 1945.
"You are surrounded," read a leaflet dropped by Russian aircraft. "All roads to Grozny are blocked. You have no chance of winning. The United Troop Command gives you a last chance. Until 11 December there will be a safety corridor through the village of Pervomaiskaya."
The threat, if carried out, is likely to lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians still in Grozny. Chechens who have left the city in the last few days said that many of those left were too old or too poor to leave. They were also frightened of crossing the city, which is being fired on, to reach the distant suburb of Pervomaiskaya, north-west of Grozny. Marie Struthers, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Watch organisation, said: "The situation has become very critical: they could starve in the next few days, in the next few weeks."
The Russian High Command left no doubt about the fate of those who stay behind. Its ultimatum said: "Those who remain will be treated as terrorists and bandits. They will be destroyed by artillery and aviation. There will be no more talk. All those who do not leave the city will be destroyed. The countdown has started."
Those least likely to be impressed are the 5,000 Chechen fighters in Grozny. Although the Russians have cut the roads leading to the city, the guerrillas have had no difficulty moving cross-country to bypass the Russian troops.
Ali Dadashev, 44, a sports teacher who was badly wounded by shrapnel from a Russian bomb when he left Grozny on 2 December, said yesterday: "About 30 per cent of the people who used to live in Grozny before the present war are still there. Despite the ultimatum they won't leave for two reasons: they have no money or transport and they think they will be attacked on the road."
Hassan Katsaev, 28, who had also just left Grozny, said: "Only about 400 out of every 1,000 people still in the city have the means to leave. In my apartment block there was one old man called Volodya, a Russian, not a Chechen, who is too weak to walk downstairs to buy bread. He gets children to buy it for him. How is he going to escape?"
Mr Dadashev left Grozny in a borrowed car last week. He said: "Near the village of Goity I saw two men pointing upwards. I jumped out of the car but there was a plane already diving. It dropped a bomb and I was hit by seven piece of shrapnel in my leg and chest."
The two men who had tried to warn him of the air attack picked him up when a second aircraft appeared.
"One of the men was hit and fell across my legs," Mr Dadashev said. "I heard his sighing and then he died. I was only saved by some Chechen fighters who took me in a car. Even then, when I got to a Russian checkpoint I had to give them my last 50-rouble note to get through."
Chechens recently arrived from Grozny estimate that there are at least 100,000 people still in the city, which had a population of about 300,000 before.
Mr Dadashev said that all hospitals in the centre of the city had been destroyed by the Russian bombardment. "I have one friend called Tolik, who lives with his wife and daughter in southern Grozny," he said. "All they have to eat is bread dipped in water."
For Chechens who take advantage of the Russian offer of a safe corridor through Pervomaiskaya, the dangers will not be over. The suburb is in the Russian-held zone. Russian television says that refugees who arrive will be screened at a camp at Znamenskoye to find out who is a rebel and who is an ordinary civilian.
The Russian plan is apparently a return to the infamous system of "filtration" camps, in which around 1,500 Chechens disappeared during the last Chechen war, in 1994-96. Many who survived were tortured.
In the present conflict, Russian troops have been treating all male Chechens between 16 and 70 as potential guerrillas, so it is unlikely that many Chechen men in that age group will turn themselves in to the Russian army.Reuse content