Russia's military commander in the region had warned of an all-out attack Thursday morning and promised a safe corridor out of Grozny until then. But Russian troops attacked the main route out on Tuesday, clashing with Chechen separatists while thousands of panicked refugees were caught in the middle.
More than 100 civilians were killed as Russian troops reportedly blew up a bridge outside Grozny, the Interfax news agency said Tuesday night.
Russian troops fighting to encircle Grozny and trap the Chechen rebels there were backed up by Russian artillery and aircraft firing on the city.
The rebel fighters overran Grozny Aug. 6, and since then only isolated pockets of Russian soldiers have remained in the battered city.
The flow of refugees turned into a flood after Russian helicopters dropped leaflets warning civilians to leave. Some people carried babies, small children, or a few possessions in plastic shopping bags as they fled on foot. Others crammed into cars and trucks decorated with white flags, bracing for a harrowing ride.
On Tuesday evening, a second road was opened for refugees out of the city; it was not clear if it remained open Wednesday.
Gen. Konstantin Pulikovsky's threat of a massive attack on Grozny put him at odds with the man President Boris Yeltsin placed in charge of ending the 20-month war: security chief Alexander Lebed. Just last week Lebed had initiated new peace talks and a shaky cease-fire in the breakaway republic.
On Tuesday, Lebed criticized plans for an assault.
"Air raids even after civilians' evacuation would only expand the conflict," said Lebed, who planned to fly to Grozny Wednesday to meet with commanders on both sides.
In a statement that cast doubt on who was giving orders, Lebed said the copy he got of a presidential directive Monday to retake Grozny bore only a facsimile of Yeltsin's signature.
Yeltsin's office only added to the confusion, saying Yeltsin had formulated the latest instructions but that they concerned negotiations.
On Monday, Yeltsin ordered Lebed to return Grozny to the control of federal troops and to continue peace talks.
The president himself has remained largely absent, dogged by reports of serious health problems. Aides said he was visiting a country resort in northern Russia.
Pulikovsky was transferring control of Russia's Chechnya operation Wednesday to Lt. Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, who indicated he would stick to the ultimatum.
Fighting raged Tuesday in the forests around the main road out of the city to the southwest, with rebels firing mortars on Russian soldiers. The Russians succeeded in cutting the corridor Tuesday afternoon, but it was not clear they could hold it.
The rebels' military chief, Aslan Maskhadov, ordered his fighters Wednesday to prepare for the second stage of their "Zero Option" plan to conquer Grozny, Interfax said. Russian commanders said rebel reinforcements had arrived in the city.
Hundreds of Russian soldiers have died and 1,000 have been wounded in the rebel assault on Grozny. The tally of victims from the entire war, most of them civilians, tops 30,000.
Russian news agencies reported small anti-war rallies Wednesday in towns around Chechnya and other parts of the Russia's North Caucasus.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had helped arrange and mediate previous peace talks, said it had pulled its mission out of Grozny until the fighting stops, Interfax said.
Some other parts of Russia braced for possible terrorist attacks. Police in Vladivostok, in Russia's Far East, were on high alert, saying they had received a threat of terrorist action by Chechen rebels, Russian news agencies said.