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GRIM, DEFIANT CHECHENS AWAIT ASSAULT BY RUSSIANS

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By morning, the men gather on Freedom Square to hear the latest news. They stand in the biting cold patiently, waiting for the war to end or for the Russian army to finally storm their city.

Somebody grabs a loudspeaker and shouts out a message: "A British journalist needs to leave. Please help with a car."A thin layer of snow covers some of the corridors in the presidential palace on the other end of the square. Many of the windows are broken. A handful of Chechen soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs carry sand to reinforce the walls of the ground floor.

The green, white and red Chechen flag flies proudly in the winter wind.

The mood is grim here in the capital of the breakaway Chechen republic, which defied Moscow by proclaiming independence three years ago.

The tiny republic is determined to protect itself against an army far superior in hardware and troops to anything the Chechens, a warrior people numbering about 1 million, could ever muster.

"We don't have a choice. It is freedom or death for us," said Khoron Jabrail, a city official.

Many of the men on Freedom Square are armed and have taken an oath of holy war, putting green bands around their foreheads.

According to official Russian accounts, their forces have already closed in on most of the city's outskirts. In fact, the western, southern and eastern roads into Grozny remain open.

One army column has reached the foot of a hill overlooking Grozny at Petropavlovsk, about six miles from the city center, where the sound of artillery and machine-gun fire can be heard.

In recent days, the Russians resorted to what they call pinpoint air raids on strategic objects, hitting broadcast, electricity and water supply facilities. Many of the bombs and rockets have hit residential quarters, killing and wounding civilians.

The heavily censored Russian media reports fail to mention such tragic mistakes.

Workers try to patch electricity cables and civilians try to salvage their belongings from under the rubble.

The windows of many buildings are crisscrossed with paper strips to withstand shock waves from the bombings. Many houses in Grozny are empty. Tens of thousands of people have left for villages, where they are staying with relatives or friends.

Many of the streets are deserted, the shops closed. One Ukrainian venture has an optimistic sign on its bolted door: "Closed for a break."