Wave after wave of Russian jets bombed the Chechen capital Thursday while Russian artillery lobbed shells into the city center. At least 24 people were killed.
It was the heaviest bombardment yet of Grozny, and a major escalation in Russia's assault on the capital of breakaway Chechnya.In one sortie, a Russian jet fired two rockets into a residential area, then swung around and fired another rocket into a crowd of people who gathered to look at the damage. Twenty people were killed in the second attack, including an American photographer.
Terrified residents fled any way they could in the first daylight air raid on Grozny. People desperately flagged down passing cars, and some women and children rode on sacks of flour on trailers dragged by tractors.
In Moscow, turmoil bedeviled the Russian military command.
Defense Minister Pavel Grachev fired three top generals in Chechnya Thursday and took personal command of military operations there, news reports said. The Defense Ministry denied the reports, saying they "don't correspond to reality."
Grachev also said he would accept the resignations of his deputy, Georgy Kondratyev, and deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian army, Col. Gen. Eduard Vorobyov, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.
Vorobyov resigned after refusing to assume command of Russian forces in Chechnya, Sergei Yushenkov, head of the Defense Committee in the lower house of parliament, told The Associated Press.
Several Russian generals have disobeyed orders or sharply criticized the handling of military operations in Chechnya, fearing it could escalate into an occupation like that in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Thursday, Grozny residents ran through the streets seeking shelter as about 12 jets dropped bombs in the third straight day of air raids. At one point, bombs fell every 30 seconds. Smoke billowed over the city, 1,000 miles southeast of Moscow, and shards of broken glass littered the icy streets.
"They're dropping bombs on the streets! They're dropping them everywhere!" said a distraught 27-year-old construction worker, Temur Albakov.
Bewildered Chechen fighters, running short of ammunition, stood at their anti-aircraft positions, not firing.
On Red Front Street, a bomb blast destroyed a truck and three cars, leaving only burning wreckage. Three men lay dead. At least 20 bodies were seen elsewhere, including that of an American photographer.
A British colleague wept as he helped Chechens wrap the photographer's body in a carpet. Her identity was not released.
The attacks on Grozny came after Chechen leaders ignored President Boris Yeltsin's promise that the area could retain some self-determination if it surrendered.
Chechnya, a mostly Muslim region of 1.2 million people in the Caucasus Mountains, declared independence in 1991, but Russia has refused to recognize the claim.
Yeltsin sent 10,000 to 40,000 soldiers into Chechnya on Dec. 11 to disarm separatists. But the offensive is making slower progress than expected.
Many officers and their men have refused to advance on the Chechen capital after peaceful civilians blocked their way.
But in a sign of Russian resolve, Moscow reportedly has sent two battalions of up to 400 marines apiece and the elite Taman Division to bolster its forces in Chechnya. The Taman Division is most famous for attacking the Russian parliament in October 1993 on Yeltsin's orders.
Heavy shelling resumed close to Grozny Thursday morning. Three large bomb craters scarred a northern suburb. Several shop fronts were destroyed, as well as all surrounding windows. The snow-covered ground was blackened for yards around.
A nine-story apartment building was hit on the roof, and three nearby homes were destroyed.
"When the bombing started, I fled the building. That's why I'm still alive," said Abdurakhman Matayev, a 57-year-old mechanic who lived on the ninth floor.
Badly outmanned and short of equipment and ammunition, Chechen government soldiers and volunteers remain highly motivated. Many of the several thousand fighters in Grozny have taken an oath of holy war, putting green bands around their foreheads.