MOSCOW (Reuters) - A senior Russian official offered on Friday to negotiate the evacuation of civilians trapped in Grozny and said there was no deadline for them to leave the besieged Chechen capital.
Chechen fighters said they had withdrawn from the last major town they had held in the lowlands apart from Grozny and were regrouping near the mountains in the south of the province.
In southwestern Chechnya, Chechen field commander Akhmed Basmukayev told Reuters correspondent Maria Eismont that civilians were unable to leave Grozny because of heavy Russian shelling of roads leading out of it.
Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, a key political ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, told NTV television he was ready to meet Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov or leading field commanders to discuss evacuating civilians from the capital.
''I am ready to meet anyone -- the devil, Maskhadov, Udugov, Basayev -- provided it produces results and they let civilians
-- old people, women and children -- leave Grozny,'' he said, apparently suggesting that Chechen rebels were prepared to use civilians in Grozny as shields. Movladi Udugov is a spokesman for the Chechen rebels and Shamil Basayev a prominent commander.
Putin, the driving force behind the campaign, had previously rejected Maskhadov's proposals for talks to resolve the conflict in Chechnya. They say the Chechen leader lacks control over the province and has not distanced himself from radical warlords.
Shoigu's spokesman, speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio, stressed talks would focus on Grozny civilians and not political issues.
Shoigu Says No Deadline For Grozny
Shoigu also denied that the military had set Saturday as a final deadline for those left in Grozny to flee or face an unrestrained barrage on the capital.
''There is no deadline. Everything will be all right. What deadline? Is it the end of the world tomorrow?'' he said.
On Monday, the Russian army dropped leaflets over Grozny saying it would kill anybody who remained in the city past Saturday and promising safe passage for those who fled.
Russian generals later said they did not intend the threat as an ultimatum, but as a warning to protect civilians.
Eismont said she saw Russian aircraft drop bombs between the villages of Tangi-Chu and Roshni-Chu, nestled in mountain gorges southwest of Grozny.
Basmukayev told her he had learned from Chechen commanders in Grozny by radio that civilians were afraid to leave after reports that Russians had opened fire on a convoy of refugees last weekend.
The threat contained in the leaflets drew the outrage of the West. Germany called it barbaric and President Clinton said Moscow risked isolation.
Chechnya was likely to figure high on the agenda of a European Union summit in Finland on Friday. President Boris Yeltsin won Chinese backing for the Chechnya offensive in two days of talks in Beijing, signaling refusal to bow to outside criticism.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in Helsinki that the international community had to be ready to act against Russia over its offensive in Chechnya, but stressed there was no question of any military intervention.
Chechens Withdraw To Mountain Gorge
The Chechen rebel Kavkaz.org web site said guerrillas had withdrawn from Shali, 20 km (12 miles) southeast of Grozny.
It said Russian forces had advanced as far as a strategic Soviet-era tank base south of the town and Chechen forces were now occupying positions in the mouth of the Argun River gorge, leading up into the southern mountains.
A Defense Ministry spokesman said the troops had not yet entered Shali and were still ''squeezing the rebels out of town.''
The reports appeared to confirm that Moscow has taken almost complete control of the broad, fertile valley south of Grozny, where nearly all Chechens live.
Apart from Grozny, which is under a full blockade, Shali was the last major town in the lowlands in rebel hands after Russian troops seized Argun last week and Urus-Martan on Wednesday.
Kavkaz.org said the village of Serzhen-Yurt, in the mouth of another strategic mountain gorge southeast of Shali, had come under intensive air strikes and artillery bombardment.
Russia has vowed to pursue the rebels into the mountains and destroy them there.
NTV quoted Shoigu as saying six corridors had been set up as of Friday to allow civilians to leave Grozny.
Shoigu has received Putin's backing as the leader of Yedinstvo (Unity) a pro-Kremlin political bloc set up only two months ago to contest a parliamentary election on December.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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