GROZNY, Russia, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Chechnya's leader has offered to talk to Russia and the head of a European security body agreed on Wednesday to attend, holding out some hope for thousands of desperate civilians trapped in the capital Grozny.
But it was still not clear whether Moscow -- which launched its military campaign against Chechen rebels two and a half months ago after a spate of bombings in Russia -- would agree to talks involving international mediation.
Civilians in the besieged capital cowered in dark cellars heated only by wood stoves throughout a night of shelling. Food is running out and some have been reduced to eating pigeons to survive. Others spoke of neighbours dead of hunger or cold.
Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, who has taken personal responsibility for evacuating civilians from Grozny, estimates the number of civilians still in the city at between 8,000 and 30,000, but other figures have been higher.
A Defence Ministry spokesman in Moscow said Russian troops had cleared rebels from the district of Khankala, site of a military airport on Grozny's eastern edge. RIA news agency said troops were clearing the Staraya Sunzha region in the northeast of the city.
But Chechen commander Lechi Islamov told Reuters in Grozny more than 7,000 fighters were still prepared to defend the city.
Russia's Itar-Tass news agency, which contacted Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov by telephone, said Maskhadov wanted talks with Russia but also wanted the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to attend.
The OSCE played a key role in negotiating an end to Russia's 1994-96 Chechnya war, and its head, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, was in a region near Chechnya due to visit Russian-held parts of Chechnya itself later on Wednesday.
"Vollebaek is willing to attend a meeting between Maskhadov and Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, perhaps today or tomorrow," Vollebaek's spokesman Ingvard Havnen told Reuters in Dagestan, east of Chechnya. "It all depends on the Russians."
Shoigu has previously offered to meet Maskhadov to discuss evacuating civilians from Grozny, but said on Wednesday he was not authorised to discuss political issues.
Interfax news agency quoted unnamed sources as saying Russia saw no need for international mediation in Chechnya, but in an apparently contradictory report, Tass quoted its own sources as saying Russia was considering the meeting.
Tass said it could take place in Ingushetia province west of Chechnya or in Russian-held parts of Chechnya itself.
CIVILIANS IN GROZNY DESPERATE AND NUMB
Continuous shelling could be heard in the Chechen capital, although there have been no air strikes for three days.
Russia has rescinded an ultimatum issued last week saying it would consider anybody left in the city past December 11 to be a valid military target, but few people have managed to use corridors Russia set up to allow civilians to leave.
During the day the streets are largely empty, but residents come out of their cellars during lulls in the shelling to collect firewood, fetch water or trade at the bazaar.
"How can we get out? These corridors -- it is a lie. We don't believe it," said Galya, a young mother with her seven-year-old daughter at a market stall.
"They say people tried to leave and got killed. Better to die here than to die on the road."
Vollebaek has called for a ceasefire around the city to allow civilians to leave.
"As far as I know, civilians have not left Grozny. That means many people who do not necessarily support the rebels would now be prisoners, victims of the fighting," he said.
Russia has scored a number of dramatic gains in the past week and now has near complete control of the Chechen lowlands apart from Grozny itself. It has turned its guns toward the sparsely populated mountains in the south where retreating rebels have set up bases.
On Tuesday, Russia said it had complete control of Shali, the last major lowland town apart from Grozny to have been in rebel hands.
Moscow launched its campaign in response to Chechen-led attacks on neighbouring regions and bomb blasts in Russia which killed nearly 300 people and were blamed by Russian leaders on Chechen separatists. The rebels deny responsibility.
The campaign has won wide public support on the eve of Sunday's parliamentary election in Russia and dramatically boosted the ratings of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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