Rockets rain panic on Grozny; Civilians fleeing Chechen capital after hospital, market hit; Hundreds of casualties; Russian army nearby threatens city still in ruins from last war


MOSCOW -- At least 10 rockets slammed into Grozny, the Chechen capital, last night, devastating an open-air market and a maternity hospital. A Chechen official said 118 people were killed and up to 400 wounded. News agency correspondents said they saw dozens of bodies.

The Russian military denied responsibility for the barrage.

The explosions caused panic in a city still in ruins from the Russian assaults of the 1994-1996 war. Roads were reported jammed with people trying to flee what they expect to be an imminent Russian invasion.

For the past week, the Russians have been consolidating their hold on the northern third of the breakaway republic, with army and Interior Ministry units occupying the plains north of the Terek River. In the past two days, Moscow has been sending mixed signals about what it plans to do next.

A group of generals in the Defense Ministry has reportedly been pushing for an advance deep into Chechen territory, apparently convinced that the disastrous mistakes of the earlier war can be avoided.

Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who visited the positions near the Terek on Wednesday, appeared to be hinting that an assault on Grozny would begin once civilians began to flee, as they did last night after the missiles began falling.

The Russian government calculates that 177,000 people have fled Chechnya. In a formal statement yesterday, the government said the first phase of the Chechen operation had been successfully completed.

"The government of the Russian federation hereby declares that its future actions will be equally determined and tough, aimed at complete restoration of law and order on the whole territory of the Chechen republic and the entire liberation of Chechnya from terrorist and other bandit formations," the statement said.

The military operation must continue, said the minister for emergency situations, Sergei Shoigu, until the Chechen government of President Aslan Maskhadov agrees to disarm militia groups, free all hostages and recognize the sovereignty of Russia.

"We should make our demands to Chechnya and Maskhadov absolutely clear," he said.

But it is not clear that Maskhadov, who has sought in vain to open talks with Moscow, has the ability to rein in the gangs that have made Chechnya largely lawless.

The Russians have said they are attacking only rebel groups, though there has been plenty of evidence that entire villages have been flattened since fighting broke out in late August. Until now, Grozny had not come under attack, though Russian troops are only about five miles from the capital.

A Reuters reporter, Maria Eismont, went to the Grozny hospital last night and found it "packed with corpses." A correspondent for Agence France-Presse said he saw 27 bodies, mostly women and newborns, at the maternity hospital.

Doctors were forced to operate by the light of kerosene lamps, with little medicine.

The market, where vegetables and leather goods were sold at crowded outdoor stalls, apparently suffered the most damage in the 6: 15 p.m. explosions. Six rockets hit the market, and witnesses said pools of blood were everywhere. The presidential palace is nearby, but there is no way to be sure what was the target.

Some reports suggested that the Russians have been using Scud missiles in their attacks on Chechen positions.

The latest war broke out in August when a band of rebels led by Shamil Basaev, a war hero at odds with Maskhadov, seized several villages in nearby Dagestan. Russians forces defended Dagestan by destroying those villages, as Basaev and his men slipped back unharmed into Chechnya. After terror bombings destroyed apartment houses in Moscow and other cities, killing about 300 people, Russian forces began to concentrate on Chechnya itself.

In part because of the fury of Russian public opinion against Chechens after the terror bombings, the war in Chechnya has greatly boosted Putin's standing with the public, and with elections coming in December he might see good reason to carry on the war. "The Chechen problem has brought about the consolidation of society in Russia," Shoigu said.

Up to now, the Russian forces have run into very little resistance. Russian television has been full of scenes of Russian soldiers giving candy to local children. Some analysts here, however, fear that the Chechen fighters are waiting for their chance to lure Russian troops into another debacle.

When Moscow sent its forces into Chechnya in 1994, entire columns were routed by the Chechens. An assault on Grozny on New Year's Day 1995 was a disaster, as untrained draftees were carried forward in columns of armored vehicles without flanking support and were wiped out. By the time Russia withdrew from the republic in 1996, effectively acknowledging its independence, as many as 80,000 people had died. Grozny was pounded into rubble.

The resentful Russian generals might be wiser this year, but the army is, if anything, in worse shape in terms of materiel and morale. The Chechens also are reported to be war-weary and in no mood for a repeat of the previous war.

Putin and his aides, nonetheless, have seized upon the conflict and are using it to their political advantage. The danger to Russia and to Chechnya is that the fighting might be about to take on a momentum and logic of its own, independent of the calculations that set it off.

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