The Russian military claims to have opened two safe corridors to allow civilians to evacuate and has declared a daytime ceasefire so they can flee without danger. The move followed international condemnation and is a step back from its earlier threat to flatten Grozny and treat anyone remaining in the city after last Saturday as a rebel.
The leaflets being dropped on the city gave cowering residents information about the ceasefire and the safe corridors out. But the civilians left behind in bunkers and cellars without heat or light are possibly unaware of the offer.
Col Gennady Alyokhin, a Russian military spokesman, said that rebel fighters were building defenses on strategic heights on the outskirts of the city, planting mines in the streets, and installing machine-guns on building roofs, preparing to rebuff Russian troops. Some rebel groups were fleeing Grozny for the rugged mountains of southern Chechnya with Russian forces in pursuit.
A convoy of about 50 armoured vehicles and long-range artillery guns yesterday rolled into position outside the villages of Goiskoye, Komsomolskoye and Alkhazurovo, some 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of Grozny, on the edge of the Caucasus Mountains range. Unit commander General Malofeyev, who declined to give his first name, issued a stern admonition to village residents. "If even a single shot comes from any of your villages, I will retaliate," he said. "But we can live without excesses."
Grozny's civilian population is estimated at up to 50,000 by Chechen sources. Many of those civilians stuck in the city are too old or too infirm to make the journey to safety. There are widely conflicting figures as to how many refugees have actually travelled along the "safe corridors", which pass via the towns of Pervomaiskaya, 20 kilometres (12 miles) north- west of the capital, and Alkhan-Yurt, just to the south-west.
Yesterday's offer by Russia to open safe corridors was geared to deflating European Union pressure on Moscow, says Lipkhan Bazaeva, head of Information and Analysis at the Chechen Foreign Ministry.
She has bitter experience of such corridors. "I left Grozny with my husband on 29 October because the Russian media said it was safe to go to the border," she says. "There were 1,500 cars backed up when we got there and the Russian officer in charge said the checkpoint was closed." As Mrs Bazaeva drove back the convoy was attacked by Russian planes. She says: "A bus near us was cut in half as if by a knife. Everybody was dead or dying." Mrs Bazaeva said: "What the Chechens are facing is worse than what happened under Stalin's purge in 1937."
She denied that there had been negotiations with Moscow since the start of the war. She said a statement by Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, that talks had been held with Chechen representatives was untrue. She said that Russia, in order to satisfy the European Union demand that political negotiations take place, "had been in contact with a former Chechen minister called Kamzat Shidayev in Moscow, but he had no mandate from (Chechen President Aslan) Maskhadov." On the contrary, said Mrs Bazaeva, the Russian security services were harrying Chechen officials and their families.
They were holding President Maskhadov's wife, Khusama, under house arrest in a sanatorium at Nalchik in southern Russia. A Chechen Interior ministry official arrested at a Russian checkpoint, was later found "mutilated by torture in a prison in Mozdok (the Russian military headquarters)."
Mrs Bazaeva thinks that it is possible that Russia will take the whole of Chechnya because of its military superiority. "They may even install a Russian administration," she said. "But Chechens will never accept it and there will be another war."