But the Russian government, maintaining its silence on reports of horrendous civilian casualties from refugees, members of parliament and western journalists, said only that its troops had killed up to 1,000 Chechen fighters in battles since Saturday around Argun, a settlement controlling the eastern approach to the capital of Grozny.
Moscow has lied repeatedly about events in Chechnya, describing savage air attacks on apartment buildings as "pinpoint" bombings or self-inflicted acts of terrorism engineered for propaganda purposes by the regime of President Dzhokhar Dudayev. In anoth
e r far-fetched claim reminiscent of the crudest Soviet tactics, the Russian government press service yesterday quoted "army intelligence" as saying Chechen soldiers were dressing up in Russian uniforms carrying out " hostile operations with regard to the local population".
With President Yeltsin silent aside for statements issued in his name, the Russian military high command in turmoil and troops still stalled outside the Chechen capital after two weeks of combat, a war to enforce Russian sovereignty over the north Caucasus has degenerated into what refugees and other witnesses describe as a chaotic campaign of random terror spearheaded by the Russian air force.
Adding to a drum-roll of threats from Moscow, Nikolai Yegorov, a vice-prime minister and consistent public advocate of a forceful military solution, threatened late on Saturday that Russian troops would storm Grozny in "coming days" if Chechnya, which d
e clared its independence in 1991, did not surrender its arms and "restore constitutional legality on the territory of the Chechen republic". Moscow also moved to sabotage a peace effort by the deputy head of the upper house of Russia's parliament, Ramaza
n Abdulatipov. A curt report by Tass news agency said Mr Abdulatipov had no mandate to enter into any talks with the Chechen parliament.
Interfax news agency reported yesterday afternoon that bombardment of Grozny had resumed. Old and poor ethnic Russians are specially vulnerable to the bombs; unlike many Chechens, who can take shelter in the villages, Russian settlers often have nowhere to go.
Russia's so-called "power ministries" and other officials discussed the crisis yesterday in Moscow, according to Tass, at a meeting chaired by Oleg Soskovets, first deputy prime minister. But it was unclear whether Mr Yeltsin himself attended. The Kreml
i n Security Council, an unelected inner cabinet similar to the Soviet-era politburo, is due to meet in full session later today. Even Mr Yeltsin's exact whereabouts are unknown.
Moscow's claim yesterday of 1,000 dead among Chechen combatants at Argun is impossible to confirm but fits a pattern of old-style disinformation aimed at portraying the war as a simple struggle between the Russian military on one side and Chechen "bandits" and Islamic mercenaries on the other. A journalist from Reuter news agency who visited Argun reported the area quiet and quoted a Chechen commander as saying only two civilians had been wounded.
Russian liberals cling to the hope that Mr Yeltsin is being manipulated and might soon shake himself free of what they call the "party of war". "Boris Nikolayevich, you must understand that you are losing time. Those who started this war will very soon not need you," said Sergei Kovalyov, a former dissident appointed Human Rights Commissioner by Mr Yeltsin last year and now in Grozny along with three members of the Russian parliament.
In a telegram sent to the Kremlin, he begged the seemingly inert Mr Yeltsin to shake himself out of his torpor: "Only you are capable of stopping this crazy massacre and of pulling the nation out of this vicious circle of despair and blood-stained lies."
Instead of a sign of disengagment from decision-making, however, Mr Yeltsin's silence may be no more than the traditional reflex of a man who is steeped in the responsibility-shirking tactics of the Soviet Communist Party.