According to a Defence Ministry spokesman, Russian warplanes in "Operation Whirlwind" were attacking "precise sites" allegedly being used by Islamic insurgents behind the bombings. But the Interfax news agency said that the strikes were hitting oil and power installations, while some 70,000 Chechen civilians have fled to neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia.
Last night President Boris Yeltsin met Igor Sergeyev, the Defence Minister, fuelling renewed speculation that the aerial assault was part of a softening- up process before a land invasion, carried out by the 13,000-odd Russian troops currently stationed around Chechnya's borders. In recent days both Marshal Sergeyev and the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, have pointedly not ruled out a ground war, despite the disastrous precedent of the 1994- 1996 conflict, which humiliated the Russian armed forces and ended in de facto independence for the North Caucasus republic.
Vladimir Rushailo, the Interior Minister, also announced that police had "identified the terrorists" responsible for the apartment bombings. Though he gave no names, Mr Rushailo said that 17 Chechen warlords, whom Moscow believes may have links with Islamic radicals abroad, were being sought by the authorities. Officials quoted by Interfax said Russian jets flew 15 sorties during the night between Monday and Tuesday, hitting an oil refinery, oil storage tanks and an electricity relay station near the Chechen capital Grozny - all intended to deprive the insurgent leaders of revenue from oil and petrol, which they use to purchase weapons to fight the Russians, the officials insist.
Such charges are hotly denied by Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya's elected president who has vainly attempted to seek a dialogue with Moscow. But in many parts of the lawless republic Mr Maskhadov's writ simply does not run, while in Russia the air war has wide support among a public outraged by the apartment bombings, which killed more than 300. Overwhelmed by up to 60,000 refugees, Chechnya's neighbour Ingushetia has appealed for United Nations aid in coping with the humanitarian crisis thrust upon it. Although that plea was dismissed by Russia, which has sovereign control of Ingushetia, Western anxiety is for the first time becoming visible.
A spokesman for the European Union said the Commission in Brussels was "very worried" about the mounting tension. Indicating the war would be a main topic at forthcoming EU-Russia meetings, he appealed to Russia not to allow the fighting to spread out of control. For its part, Moscow is stepping up pressure to counter the flow of weapons and money from abroad to the Chechen insurgents who are apparently bent on setting up an Islamic state in neighbouring Dagestan, and perhaps even in Chechnya. After Mr Yeltsin demanded "100 per cent guarantees" that men, arms and money would not filter into Chechnya from abroad, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Azerbaijan's ambassador to protest alleged Azeri support for the insurgency in the Caucasus. Earlier, a top Russian defence official claimed that mercenaries from Georgia and Azerbaijan were crossing into Chechnya to aid the rebels.