GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - Russia turned up the heat on Chechnya on Friday by shelling the capital Grozny, where ghost-like civilians cowered in cellars, and dropping troops onto rebel terrain just two days before a general election.
''This operation could change the whole picture of the counter-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus,'' Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said after describing a large-scale drop to cut a vital road between Chechnya and Georgia.
Georgia has denied Russian charges that Chechen rebels move supplies and reinforcements through its territory.
In Berlin, Big Power foreign ministers gathered in a Group of Eight meeting demanded fellow member Russia call an immediate halt to a military onslaught now well into its third month.
''The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by indiscriminately fighting against cities and the whole population,'' German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters after the meeting.
Moscow, which says it is battling bandits responsible for bombings in Russia, rejects such criticism as interference in its internal affairs. On Friday, it pressed ahead with its military operation.
Artillery rocked Grozny and rebels told Reuters Russian forces were pressing into the regional capital from several directions despite suffering heavy losses in a clash on Wednesday night. Moscow denies any incident took place then.
Chechen rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov told Reuters by telephone that Russian troops had been parachuted into an area about two kms (one mile) from Georgia. Helicopters can also be used to deploy paratroops.
''Ghost Town'' Grozny Under Siege
Warplanes resumed heavy bombardment of Grozny on Thursday. Russia had refrained from bombing earlier in the week to help civilians flee, but few have been able to take advantage of promised safe corridors.
Residents mostly shelter in cellars, emerging like phantoms during brief lulls in the shelling to search for food. Some have been eating pigeons to survive.
Zhorik Shcherbakov, a middle-aged man suffering from concussion, was burying his wife under the debris of the home where she and two others were killed by Russian artillery.
''We have nowhere to go. We were born here,'' he said. ''Now my wife is dead and I will go nowhere.''
Like many of the civilians in Grozny, the Shcherbakovs are ethnic Russians. Russian officials have estimated between 8,000 and 30,000 civilians remain, although some estimates are higher.
The bombing and shelling made it difficult for the small group of reporters for foreign news organizations to travel widely through the city to confirm the extent of fighting.
But rebels said there had been clashes in the east, northeast, northwest and southwest of the city.
This correspondent witnessed a clash late on Wednesday in the east of the city, when a Russian armored column was destroyed, and saw the bodies of more than 100 dead Russian soldiers. Russian officials denied the clash took place and denounced foreign news agencies.
Russian generals say they will capture the capital within days, but have promised to avoid storming it with ground troops.
The Chechnya campaign has become the central issue in Russia's parliamentary election, which takes place on Sunday.
Putin, who took office just as conflict in and near Chechnya began, has become Russia's most popular leader, and the two-month-old Unity bloc he backs is set to do well on Sunday.
Grozny And Mountains Toughest Tasks
Russian troops scored quick gains against rebels in their nearly three-month-old campaign, meeting little resistance in taking virtually all the lowlands where most Chechens live.
Itar-Tass new agency quoted officials saying 533 Russian soldiers and Interior Ministry servicemen had died during the campaign in Chechnya and the neighboring Dagestan region, a fraction of Moscow's losses during the 1994-96 Chechen conflict.
But Russia now faces its two most difficult military tasks -- seizing Grozny, with its narrow streets guarded by several thousand guerrillas, and pushing up into the forbidding Caucasus mountains in the south, the highest range in Europe.
Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov has offered to make important concessions if foreign mediators are invited to any talks.
Knut Vollebaek, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who visited the region this week, said he was willing to attend talks.
But Russia has not agreed to this so far.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet