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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jets Blast Grozny as Deadline Looms

GROZNY, Chechnya -- As many as eight planes bombed the Chechen capital Grozny for the second day running Wednesday, 12 hours before President Boris Yeltsin's ultimatum calling for the warring sides to lay down their arms or face intervention was due to expire.

Smoke billowed from a military airfield in the east of the city, mingling with a much larger pall from fuel tanks at the civilian airport still ablaze after a bombing raid Tuesday. Chechen officials said eight Russian planes took part in the raid and that two people had been killed.

At 7 P.M. Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev and all his cabinet ministers left the presidential palace, indicating that they were expecting an attack.

Dudayev also ordered in a statement that women and children should be evacuated from Grozny in anticipation of an assault.

Otherwise, Grozny was quiet Wednesday but with a tense expectation of a Russian attack as early as Thursday morning when the ultimatum expires at 6 A.M.

Several Russian transport planes brought weapons and troops to the border of Chechnya, according to the NTV independent network in Moscow. Army officials suggested the planes belonged to Interior Ministry forces, according to AP

"Anything could happen, we just don't know," said Chechen Information Minister Movmadi Udugov, bad-humoredly picking his teeth with a matchstick in his office.

In Moscow, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin canceled a planned trip to Siberia to deal with the crisis in Chechnya.

But he struck a conciliatory tone, declaring that the Russian leadership was ready to: "do anything, to enter any negotiations, in order to prevent bloodshed in Chechnya," Interfax reported.

"I really hope that people in Chechnya will understand that they cannot afford to play with these matters, that they cannot go any further," Chernomyrdin said On Tuesday morning, Yeltsin issued a 48-hour ultimatum warning the two sides to lay down their arms, or else Moscow would use all necessary force to impose order in the tiny North Caucasus republic.

Dudayev, in customary swaggering style, promised a heroic stand Wednesday against the threatened Russian invasion. He sent a mocking telegram to Russian Air Force commander Pyotr Deneikin.

"I congratulate you and the air force of the Russian Federation on your latest victory in winning supremacy of the air over the territory of the Chechen Republic. We will meet on the ground," the telegram said.

But in a telephone conversation with Sergei Yushenkov, chairman of the State Duma's Defense Committee, Dudayev also appeared to take a more conciliatory tone, saying that he was willing to enter negotiations with Moscow.

Yushenkov said Dudayev had agreed to receive a delegation from the Duma flying to Grozny on Thursday to discuss the fate of some 70 Russians captured by Dudayev's forces last weekend. He said the Chechen leader had given an assurance that the delegation "will be able to take back with them some of the Russians taken prisoner", according to Interfax.

But on the streets of Grozny the mood was far from conciliatory. The square in front of the presidential palace was packed with about 600 to 700 lightly armed Dudayev supporters, all declaring their willingness to fight to the end. Some sang patriotic and religious songs.

Apart from that, the city seemed poorly defended against a potential Russian attack, and there was no evidence of heavy weapons in the center of town.

"Whatever they say they can take nothing from us," said Isa, a 22-year-old Dudayev guard. "We will stand and fight. Even if they send in troops and impose their order, they won't conquer us."

Salam, a Chechen businessman working in Moscow, said he had come to defend Chechen independence. He said there would be carnage if the Russians went in, but there was no backing down now.

"We understand that a lot of people will die, but we are standing up for our freedom," Salam said.

Grozny has begun to show scars from the conflict between Dudayev and the Chechen opposition. The streets are strewn with broken glass, smashed branches and trailing tram wires. The bazaar, which four months ago was doing a thriving trade in French shirts, Arabic perfumes and German beer, is now a deserted, muddy mess.

The road leading out of Grozny to Vladikavkaz was filled with people fleeing the fighting.