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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ultimatum: Leave Grozny or Perish

GORAGORSKY ROAD, Western Chechnya -- Russia's military issued an ultimatum Monday warning all Chechens that they must leave their capital by the end of the week or be "destroyed," provoking a new exodus of terrified refugees.

Scores of people made their way down this narrow road from Grozny after reading the ultimatum, delivered in leaflets dropped over the city as Russian troops closed in.

"You are surrounded. All roads to Grozny are blocked. You have no chance of winning," the leaflets said. "Until Dec. 11, there will be a safe corridor through the village of Pervomaiskoye."

"Those who remain will be viewed as terrorists and bandits. They will be destroyed by artillery and aviation. There will be no more talks. All those who do not leave the city will be destroyed."

The Russian military has been raining bombs and artillery on the city for weeks but has been hesitant to risk storming it, for fear that street battles would cause the kind of heavy casualties that Russia suffered in Grozny in the 1994-96 war.

Now the Russians are threatening to unleash their biggest artillery and air bombardment on the city so far and smash Grozny into submission.

On the highway leading west from the capital, families came out on foot or by car, telling of a city in terror and panic. Many people, especially the elderly and poor, remained trapped, they said.

Taisa, 37, said she had offered to help her neighbor, an elderly Russian woman, to flee. "She said she would stay behind because she was too tired to flee. 'If God wills it, we will live,' she told me. I left her all the food and water we had."

Oleg, 31, said he had brought with him an elderly Russian woman he had found sitting by a road. "I said, 'Grandma, don't you want to leave?' She said, 'How can I? The buses take up to 30 rubles per person and the taxi costs hundreds. I haven't got any money.'

"I told her, 'Get in the car. All I can promise is that if I live, you will live.' She came with me."

A deputy emergency situations minister, Sergei Khetagurov, told reporters in Moscow the corridor could be opened later Monday.

It was unclear who could or would leave. Most of the civilians in Grozny - Russians estimate between 15,000 and 40,000 remain - are old or infirm.

Chechen President Aslan Mas-khadov was still in Grozny on Monday, the Russian military command said, according to Interfax.

Russia said over the weekend its forces had encircled Grozny. Chechen rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov acknowledged all roads out of the city were blocked, but said fighters could still skirt Russian positions and were gathering to make a stand.

Chechen fighters can be seen freely moving in and out at night. An Associated Press reporter outside Grozny had no trouble traveling through the widely-spaced Russian positions around the city.

Routes for travel are explored by Chechen scouts and then become common knowledge among local residents. Russian troops rarely change their positions or venture outside checkpoints, making their hold on the area largely symbolic.

Udugov, speaking by telephone from an unknown location in southern Chechnya, said there were 50,000-80,000 civilians left in the city, and "enough fighters to ensure the city's defense."

"All [fighters] who are there are prepared for whatever happens, and nobody plans to abandon the city," he said. As for civilians, "it is practically impossible for them to leave, because [the Russians] have been shelling all the roads."

Udugov also said Russians had used aerosol bombs on targets in the center of Grozny and an industrial region on Monday morning, killing dozens and wounding scores.

The report, the first of its kind, could not be independently confirmed.

Russian media have suggested Moscow might use the bombs - which release clouds of inflammable gas creating massive blasts that incinerate buildings and people - in a final drive to depopulate Grozny.

Refugees said bombing and shelling of Grozny itself was lighter Monday than on previous days, but ground fighting raged around Urus-Martan and Argun - gateways to Grozny that the Russians have been trying to seize for weeks.

Colonel General Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of the General Staff, said Monday that Russian forces would overrun Urus-Martan within days.

Russian commanders claimed to have captured Argun last week, but officers in Chechnya admitted Monday that rebels still held parts of the city.

Chechen rebels have been turning increasingly to guerrilla tactics, Colonel Gennady Alyokhin, a Russian military spokesman, said Sunday.

He also said the militants "are taking measures to turn Grozny and Urus-Martan into impregnable fortresses, where federal forces would suffer significant losses if they enter."

Maskhadov warned that Chechen fighters would try to shift the war into a terrain unfavorable to the Russians. "We will fight using the tactics of guerrilla war," Maskhadov said on Chechen television Saturday night. "Largely retreating from cities and towns, we will pull Russian troops into the mountains."

Accounts from survivors bolstered charges that Russian soldiers had killed some 40 civilians Friday in an attack on a convoy of refugees.

Radio Liberty, the U.S. broadcast service, quoted witnesses who said the soldiers opened fire on the white-flagged convoy of seven automobiles and a bus Friday morning as the vehicles paused at a military checkpoint south of Grozny.

One survivor, Tais Aidalarova, was quoted as saying that masked troops had turned automatic rifles on the vehicles, setting the bus ablaze in an explosion as bullets pierced its gas tank. She said the only survivors of the attack were in her Niva hatchback.

"Then they came up; they themselves put bandages on us and gave us analgesics. Then we asked, 'Could we go back to Grozny?' They said, 'No, you cannot get back alive.'"

Russian soldiers took her and six other survivors to hospitals in nearby Ingushetia, she said.

Interfax quoted officials as saying 30 vehicles were destroyed Friday on roads leading out of Grozny, but that all the cars contained rebels, not civilians. The military believes rebels are using the roads to ferry supplies and reinforcements into Grozny to prepare for a defense of the city against advancing Russian forces.