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Russian Planes Warn Chechen Civilians of Intensified Strikes

By Daniel Williams

Russian planes dropped leaflets Monday over Grozny, the devastated capital of breakaway Chechnya, delivering a stark ultimatum to civilians: Leave by Saturday or face intensified air and artillery strikes.

Leaflets also warned Grozny’s defenders to give up or die, and officials said new, heavier armaments will be used to batter the city. “Everyone who fails to leave ... will be destroyed,” the leaflets said.

Russian officials described the ultimatum as the start of a new phase in the combat against the separatist region. Rebels will be wiped out or expelled from urban areas and forced into the mountainous south, where they will be pounded by pursuing jets and artillery, they said.

The two ultimatums support the growing perception that Russian generals urgently want to retake the city from which they were expelled three years ago at the end of Chechnya’s independence war. They appeared intent on creating an urban free-fire zone in which anything that moves will be considered a legitimate military target.

Up to 20,000 civilians remain in the city, the Russians said. Chechen officials put the number at 40,000.

President Clinton sharply criticized the Russian ultimatum to civilians, calling it “a threat to the lives of the old, the infirm, the injured people and other innocent civilians who simply cannot leave or are too scared to leave their homes.”

“Russia will pay a heavy price for those 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 at the White House.

The expressed aim of the conflict is to free Chechnya of “terrorists” and restore Russian rule. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has elevated the war to a battle for the very existence of Russia. Over the weekend, he responded to intense Western criticism of the campaign’s brutality by saying Moscow could not be expected to build friendly relations with foreign countries “at the price of breaking up our state.”

There is political significance for Putin in the timing of the planned offensive. Russian parliamentary elections are scheduled for Dec. 19, and the results are regarded as a bellwether for next year’s presidential vote. Putin has staked his presidential candidacy on the war’s outcome, and so far his popularity has soared. He backs the Unity party in the parliamentary vote