Russians offer `safe passage' but Grozny's besieged say the bombs still rain down

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RUSSIA APPEARS to have backed away, in response to international protests, from its ultimatum that all civilians must get out of Grozny by today or face annihilation.

Sergei Shoigu, Minister for Emergency Services, said civilians could safely leave by six routes and that troops would stop operations while they did so. "There is no deadline."

Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, said he was in contact with Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya's president, and that earlier this month the two sides had outlined terms for ending the conflict.

Yesterday the European Union criticised Moscow's conduct in Chechnya and switched aid for the Russian economy to humanitarian assistance to increase pressure on Moscow to seek a political solution. The EU leaders, meeting in Helsinki, also agreed to tighten trade terms, to suspend parts of a cooperation agreement and to review the bloc's entire strategy on Russia.

Despite the Russian claim that there is a temporary ceasefire, Chechens said there was no let-up in the bombardment of the capital.

Almost no refugees have left since 2 December, when Grozny was surrounded by Russian troops.

Yesterday Chechens who fled the city earlier said they feared the Russians would use poison gas, because Russian officers say their soldiers are being given antidotes for chemical weapons.

On the battle front the insurgents said they had withdrawn from Shalli, the last town they held in the plains of Chechnya, into the mountains.