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IS MOSCOW TURNING DOWN HEAT ON REBEL REPUBLIC?

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A Russian ultimatum demanding an end to Chechnya's civil war expired early Thursday, but Moscow appeared to back away from threats to send troops into the breakaway southern republic.

Russia had threatened Tuesday to impose a state of emergency on the Caucasus Mountain region if its president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, and rebels opposing him did not surrender prisoners and stop fighting.Neither side showed any indication of complying.

But Thursday evening, President Boris Yeltsin's office issued an altered text of Yeltsin's original ultimatum, saying "there was disagreement in the media in interpreting certain clauses of the document."

The reissued document made no reference to a state of emergency.

A delegation of Russian lawmakers and other leaders arrived Thursday afternoon in Grozny, capital of the republic of 1.2 million, and began closed-door talks with Chechen officials.

Chechnya declared independence from Russia in 1991, soon after Dudayev's election. The fighting, which intensified last week after months of skirmishes, pits forces loyal to Dudayev against the rebels, who Dudayev says are armed and led by Moscow.

Jet flyovers jangled nerves in Grozny for a third day, and some bombs were dropped. Dudayev, looking tired at a news conference in the basement of his presidential palace, said his house had been bombed.

A small airport near the city was hit Thursday and a woman's corpse was seen. The ITAR-Tass news agency said two women were killed in the raid at the military air base, and fuel depots were burning.

A trickle of heavily loaded cars and trucks continued leaving Grozny before a feared attack by Russian soldiers.

Moscow openly supports Dudayev's opponents but denies providing military assistance. After Dudayev's forces captured Russian fighters Saturday, Moscow said mercenaries were fighting on both sides.

A single military jet roared over Grozny as the Russian deadline passed. Later, heavy machine-gun fire rang out from the city center.

Yeltsin offered a limited amnesty to Chechens who lay down their arms and are not implicated in grave crimes against civilians, ITAR-Tass said.

In Freedom Square outside the presidential building, several hundred volunteer fighters cradling Kalashnikov rifles and grenade launchers gathered to hear speeches while a tank maneuvered into position.

Chechen elders danced in a circle, chanting, "Freedom or death!"

Russian media reported troop movements around the borders of Chechnya, in southern Russia. The Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies said Russian army units would support Interior Ministry forces.

The conflict is the latest underlining tensions among the scores of ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union. The Caucasus region has been especially fractious, with fighting in the Ossetian and Abkhazian regions of Georgia and the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

For Moscow, which governs dozens of republics and regions in the Russian Federation, Chechnya has become a test of whether it is willing to use military might to hold the country together. No other region has gone as far as Chechnya and declared independence.