Moscow/Geneva, 7 December 1999 (RFE/RL) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said today that western governments should use their influence to put pressure on Chechen leaders instead of calling on Moscow to stop the military campaign. Putin said Moscow is ready to open talks with any "sober-minded" leaders in Chechnya but suggested western efforts should be directed at freeing hostages taken by Chechen fighters. Putin said many of those held hostages are foreigners.
Russia's stated plan to begin a massive bombardment on the Chechen capital on Saturday has come under fire in the West and from republics neighboring Chechnya.
Russia's military commander in the North Caucasus, Viktor Kazantsev, denied any ultmiatum had been given to Grozny residents. Kazantsev said leaflets warning of the impending attack were dropped as a goodwill gesture to civilians to allow them time to flee the city ahead of the planned assault on the Chechen capital.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook summoned Russia's ambassador today to express London's concern about what he called the "get out or die" ultimatum issued by Russia yesterday.
Kris Janowski, a spokesman for UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said continued shelling of Grozny by Russian forces is preventing people from leaving.
An Iranian-led delegation from the Organization of the Islamic Conference is traveling to the North Caucasus region today to visit refugee camps. The organization has raised concerns about the planned attack also, particularly as it will fall during the start of the Muslim holy period of Ramadan.
The president of the Russian republic of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, said between 30,000 and 40,000 mainly elderly people are stuck in Grozny and will not be able to leave by this Saturday. Aushev said he fears a repeat of the assault on Grozny in 1994 when thousands of civilians died during a Russian attack on the city. North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov called on Moscow to open talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.
Meanwhile, Russian forces launched rocket attacks on Grozny today and heavy fighting is reported southwest of Grozny near the town of Urus-Martan.