A rocket slammed into the presidential palace of Chechnya on Thursday after a day of Russian shelling of this rebel capital and air raids on nearby villages.
But the green Chechen flag flew defiantly as the city braced for an expected assault by Russian troops.
The seventh and eighth floors of Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev’s 10-story palace burst into flames after the attack at dusk, which left no reported casualties. Only the basement and first floor were occupied - by Chechen defenders and the wounded from both sides.
Chechen witnesses said the rocket apparently came from a Russian warplane, but that could not be confirmed. The besieged city, 1,000 miles south of Moscow, had been pounded all day by surface rockets and artillery.
Russia’s Interfax news agency reported a raid aimed at Grozny’s oil storage tanks but gave no details.
But the Russian government denied bombing anywhere in the city.
The barrage came a day after Russian President Boris Yeltsin, for the second time in a week, ordered a halt to air attacks on Grozny.
Refugees fleeing Shali, where at least 55 people were killed by cluster bombs Tuesday, said the farm town 18 miles south of Grozny had been bombed again from the air at 6 a.m. Thursday.
Another series of explosions rocked the area southwest of Grozny at 11 a.m., and there were reports of more bombings in Pervomayskaya and several other suburbs.
The Russian government confirmed air attacks outside Grozny on what it called “Dudayev strongholds, troops and armor.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyev, arrived in Moscow from Grozny, accusing his government of “gigantic lies” and massive human rights violations. He said he is due to meet with Yeltsin today “to look the president in the eye and ask him … if he really understands what is happening.”
As Parliament prepared for an emergency session on the Chechen war, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called for early presidential elections to dump Yeltsin.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians and fighters have been killed since Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya on Dec. 11 in a so-far frustrated campaign to crush this tiny Muslim republic’s self-declared independence. The Red Cross estimates 350,000 people - a third of the Chechen population - are refugees.
Still, Chechen morale is high. Nearly every man, woman and child still in Grozny, a city of 400,000 people before the war, insists he or she is ready to fight to the death to repel the Russians.
“We have enough ammunition for three years,” said Chechen commander Rezon Nurkayev, patrolling the shell-cratered streets around the presidential palace with a group of heavily armed men.
“Yesterday, the Russians said they’re bringing in KGB troops and special forces. Let them come,” said Nurkayev. “We’ll take care of them.”