By Maria Eismont
GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - Thousands of civilians remained trapped in Grozny on Tuesday afraid to leave the Chechen capital, which was being hit almost continuously by Russian shells despite Western calls for a truce.
A Chechen rebel Internet web site said the storming of the capital had begun. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman denied that report, but Interfax news agency quoted military sources as confirming clashes had taken place in the city.
Under Western pressure, Russia rescinded an ultimatum issued last week saying it would kill anybody who remained in the city after December 11 and promised to set up safe corridors to allow civilians to escape. But so far only small numbers have done so.
''Where can we go? They will not let us out through these corridors, if they even exist,'' said Khadizhat, a woman trapped in Grozny with her children.
The steady thud of exploding shells could be heard. The city has been under siege for more than a week and has become the focus of international concern after Russia's ultimatum.
Residents said there had been no air strikes against Grozny for several days, but shelling in and around the city had not stopped. Small groups of armed men roamed the rubble-strewn streets, which were otherwise mostly empty.
In Moscow, Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is overseeing Russian efforts to evacuate Grozny, told a briefing that only about 2,200 civilians had been able to leave through the corridors ''but there is a trend for the figure to rise.''
He said between 8,000 and 30,000 more remained in the city and called on Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov to help get them out. The figures were lower than previous estimates of the number of civilians still in the city.
The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Knut Vollebaek, who was visiting neighboring regions, urged both sides to declare a truce near Grozny and allow trapped civilians to escape.
Escape Requires Difficult Trek
Escape routes require residents to make long treks through the ruined city on foot and many of those still in Grozny were isolated, elderly people who lacked the means to escape.
''I fought for five years in World War Two,'' said 86-year-old Baisuk Isayev. ''World War Two was a toy compared to this.''
Kavkaz.org web site, run by Chechen spokesman Movladi Udugov, reported: ''The storming of the Chechen capital is under way practically at full scale. The outskirts are under uninterrupted attack from virtually all directions.''
A spokesman for Russia's army said there was no fighting in the city, but Interfax news agency quoted military sources as saying skirmishes had already taken place inside the city. The army says it has no plans to storm Grozny with ground troops.
The army spokesman also said by telephone in Moscow that Russian forces had rescued the pilot of a jet that crashed in the mountains on Monday, but two helicopters had crashed during the operation and the crew of one was killed. Kavkaz.org said Chechen fighters had shot down two planes and three helicopters.
Russian troops, who have captured nearly all the lowlands south of Grozny in the Chechen heartland, have now turned south, attacking a gorge leading to rebel strongholds in the mountains.
Russian media reported that troops were sweeping through the town of Shali, the last major lowland town apart from Grozny they had yet to seize. Rebels had said they withdrew on Friday.
Shells tore into the village of Chiri-Yurt at the mouth of the Argun River gorge leading into the mountains 20 km (15 miles) south of Grozny after dusk on Monday, shooting clouds of orange smoke into the sky.
Vollebaek Gets Tour Of Conflict Zone
The OSCE's Vollebaek began a long-awaited two-day visit to the conflict zone. Russian officials clearly want to convince him of the rightness of their cause, and Shoigu said he would show him a video of Chechen gangsters executing kidnap victims.
Vollebaek was flown to the mountains of Dagestan province, east of Chechnya, to see the ruins of villages destroyed when Russian forces beat back an incursion by Chechen-led guerrillas in August and met Dagestan's ardently pro-Moscow regional boss.
He was to visit Russian-held parts of Chechnya itself on Wednesday and tour refugee camps.
On Monday Vollebaek called for a cease-fire near Grozny to let civilians leave the city.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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