Russia vows to conquer Grozny within days

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REJECTING ALL pleas for political negotiations, Russia yesterday stepped up the military onslaught against Grozny, declaring it was now in a position to take the Chechen capital in days, and conquer the entire breakaway province "in a matter of weeks".

Throughout the day, fierce fighting continued in several outlying districts of Grozny. The Russian army showered rockets and missiles on the city as they dismantle it, building by building. In Grozny, the dead lie unburied. Those who do have a place to rest lie under the dirt in courtyards of apartment blocks and on waste ground sheltered from incoming artillery. The refugees leaving the city tell horror stories of life there. They live in basements and sewers, emerging only to collect water or hunt pigeons for food.

According to the Defence Ministry in Moscow, Russian troops have "cleared" rebels from the Khankala military airport on Grozny's eastern edge, and were conducting a similar operation on the city's northeastern rim. The insurgents, however, said they had repulsed half a dozen Russian attacks.

Whatever the claims, the Kremlin is pursuing the tactics which have served it well in the three month war: raining artillery and bombs on alleged rebel strongholds, sending terrified civilians fleeing and driving the guerillas from one urban base to another - now, it is intended, from Grozny itself. "There will be no storming, no assaults on Grozny as long as a single civilian is there," Colonel-General Valery Manilov, the first Deputy Chief of Staff, told foreign military attaches in Moscow yesterday, trying once more to placate Western criticism of a disproportionate and overly-brutal campaign against Chechnya.

Estimates of the remaining population in the city range from a Russian figure of little more than 10,000 to the international relief agencies' guess of over 40,000 - most of these trapped by their fear that the Kremlin's repeated promises of safe corridors from Grozny simply cannot be trusted. Ironically, among the most vulnerable still in Grozny are many elderly ethnic Russians, those who, years ago, retired to the milder southern climate hoping for peace and quiet.

Once more Russian leaders rejected a warning - this time by Paavo Lipponen, Prime Minister of Finland, which currently holds the EU Presidency - that Europe would re-assess relations with Moscow if the offensive continued. Responding to overtures about talks from Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen President, Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Emergencies Minister, said he was only prepared to discuss humanitarian aid, not a political settlement. Nor, he added, was he interested in foreign mediators.