GORAGORSKY ROAD, Western Chechnya, Russia (Reuters) - Terrified residents fled the Chechen capital Grozny on Monday night, after the Russian military issued an ultimatum saying they had five days to quit the city or face likely death.
The ultimatum drew condemnation from Western leaders who have been urging Moscow to halt its military campaign and to begin a dialogue with Chechnya's separatist leadership.
Russia's Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu was due to fly to the region Tuesday to help organize the delivery of humanitarian aid to parts of Chechnya now under Russian control.
A mission from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (IOC) was also expected to visit Russian-occupied Chechnya as well as camps in neighboring regions, where up to a quarter of a million refugees from the conflict are already living.
On Monday evening scores of people made their way down this narrow road from Grozny after reading the Russian warning in leaflets distributed as troops closed in on the capital.
''You are surrounded, all roads to Grozny are blocked. You have no chance of winning,'' leaflets dropped over the city read. ''Until December 11, there will be a safety 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 leaflets said.
Russia Braces For Thousands Refugees
Russia's migration service said it expected 20,000 to 30,000 people to flee Grozny in the next five days. Nikolai Koshman, Russia's Chechnya boss, said he believed 40,000 civilians were still there.
On the highway leading west from the capital, families came out on foot or by car, telling of a city in terror. 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.''
West Steps Up Criticism, Islamic Countries Also Worried
President Clinton delivered his strongest comments to date on Russia's tactics in Chechnya.
''Russia will pay a heavy price for these actions, with each passing day sinking more deeply into a morass that will intensify extremism and diminish its own standing in the world,'' Clinton said in a White House speech on human rights.
The European Union condemned the Russian ultimatum and said it was considering not signing accords with Moscow to put pressure on it to end the bloodshed.
''The present campaign and the unacceptable threat to the people of Grozny can only perpetuate, not break the cycle of violence in the northern Caucasus,'' EU foreign ministers said in a statement.
Iran's Foreign Minister Khamal Kharrazi, who heads the OIC mission due to visit Chechnya Tuesday, called for peace.
''We believe it is vital to halt military activity and achieve a political solution to the Chechen problem as quickly as possible,'' Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying.
Russia completed its encirclement of Grozny at the weekend, but rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov told Reuters by telephone from an unknown location in southern Chechnya there were still ''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.
Udugov also said Russians had used aerosol bombs on targets in the center of Grozny and an industrial region 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.
Russian commanders have pledged to avoid storming Grozny with ground troops after suffering huge losses there in 1994.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet