Moscow, 8 December 1999 (RFE/RL) - Russia, facing a storm of Western and Islamic criticism, appears to have eased its ultimatum that residents of the Chechen capital Grozny flee or face an overwhelming military onslaught. Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo indicated yesterday that a checkpoint outside Grozny would stay open beyond the deadline of Saturday, December 11, to allow people to pass through.
Russian Colonel-General Viktor Kazantsev said the deadline applied only to militants in Grozny and not to civilian residents. But he gave no details on how civilians could be spared if Russia carried out a devastating bombardment of the capital.
Anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people are believed to remain in Grozny, despite nearly constant Russian air and artillery attacks over the past three months. Reports said many people, now hiding in shelters, may be unaware of the deadline.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, reacting to a barrage of criticism over the ultimatum, said foreign governments should also put pressure on Chechen rebels to lay down their arms. Governments around Europe issued more calls for the Russian ultimatum to be withdrawn. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said the Chechnya violence was provoking unease in the Islamic world.
But the United States suggested it was unlikely to cut off aid to Russia over the conflict. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said most aid goes toward helping Russia reduce its nuclear threat and that ending such aid would hurt U.S. national interests.