Russia's warplanes blast Chechnya

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SHORTLY after Boris Yeltsin's midnight surrender deadline expired, Russian warplanes last night buzzed the Chechen capital of Grozny and explosions were heard north-west of the city. Chechnya's vice president went on television and urged his peopl e "to be courageous and calm in the face of the coming aggression".

The Chechen President, Dzhokhar Dudayev, had offered last-minute talks to end the fighting in his separatist republic. But Russian officials said it was already too late, and threatened a missile assault on Grozny unless General Dudayev's forces surrendered their weapons.

Russian warplanes flew towards Chechnya and a series of blasts rocked areas near the rebel region's border with Ingushetia minutes after the deadline expired. Eye-witnesses reported constant air activity over Chechnya's border with the ethnic region to the west. At least seven or eight planes made passes over the frontier towards Chechnya, followed by a series of explosions from the direction of the rebel region.

As Russia's deadline for Chechen fighters to disarm expired, roads out of the rebel capital were jammed with refugees trying to get out. But the roads were equally crowded with people moving into the city. Convoys of cars carried fighters, rushing to defend their capital.

"What will happen tomorrow? We don't even know what will happen tonight or in half an hour," said Vladimir, a skinny 26-year-old Russian tank commander, last night on a muddy road west of the capital.

Next to him loomed his T-72 tank, sent to outflank more hesitant or rebellious troops who showed signs of refusing to fire on the rebels. The machine was piled with shells sprinkled with the soggy snow of a bleak fog-filled winter in the north Caucasus, a region that Russia was trying to subdue for much of the last century, and which it now seems ready to risk almost anything to retain.

"We have orders to stand still, so we stand still. When we get orders to move we move," said Vladimir. When troops do advance, most likely at dawn today after Grozny has been pummelled from the air, Russia will be confronted with the kind of passions, tactics and possible disaster that so ravaged the Soviet army in Afghanistan. The Chechens have promised to kill Russian troops they hold as prisoners as soon as the bombs start to fall. In Grozny's Freedom Square, Madamudayev, a Muslim farmer, screamed: "For 360 years we have been defending ourselves. Now imperial Russia is trying to reimpose its rule They will not be able to do it without lots of blood."

The stand-off that began three years ago when the Muslim region of Chechnya on Russia's southern flank declared itself independent is now reaching its terrible climax. At risk are not only the lives of 150,000 stranded in Grozny - many of them elderly Russians with no money or place to go,- but also the principles on which Boris Yeltsin came to power in 1991."Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow," he said then.

Mr Yeltsin, is opposed by his most stalwart supporters, as well as by disillusioned democrats. And he is challenged by segments of his impoverished, angry and increasingly divided armed forces.

Yeltsin's tanks, page 12

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