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CHECHEN CHIEF WANTS TO TALK PEACE

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With Russian bombs raining down on the capital of his republic, Chechnya's leader, holed up in a bomb shelter under the presidential palace, reportedly told the Kremlin Thursday he was ready to talk peace.

President Dzhokhar Dudayev sent a telegram expressing his intent to enter talks "with a view to resolving the armed conflict," reported Radio Mayak, a Moscow station owned by the state-run nationwide Ostankino broadcasting company. It quoted unnamed sources in the Chechen capital of Grozny.The report could not be immediately confirmed. It did not give a text of the telegram and it could not be determined if this was different from Dudayev's previous offers to negotiate.

Dudayev previously had offered to talk peace "without preconditions" but had said that Chechen forces would never surrender or negotiate unless Russian troops withdrew.

But the Russians hold a huge advantage in manpower and equipment, with as many as 40,000 troops to only several thousand Chechens, and have made significant gains in recent days.

Smoke darkened the sky over Grozny's industrial district Thursday as Russian bombers roared overhead and artillery pounded the outskirts of Grozny. The city was hit by airstrikes throughout the day.

Both Chechen and Russian officials reported clashes on the northern, western and eastern edges of Grozny.

Later Thursday, Chechen officials told the Interfax news agency that Russian forces had halted their advance and were digging trenches on the city's outskirts, three to four miles from the city center.

Chechnya, a southern republic of 1.2 million people, most of them Muslims, declared independence from Russia in 1991. President Boris Yeltsin said he sent troops into Chechnya two weeks ago to free it from the grip of criminal gangs and bring it back into Russia's fold.

Yeltsin had promised Tuesday to stop air raids that cause civilian casualties and to talk peace. The Chechens refused to negotiate and the bombing continued.

The Chechen vice president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, was quoted by Interfax as saying a Russian warplane had been shot down Thursday near Zony, 30 miles south of Grozny. There was no independent confirmation.

The government also said Russian forces had destroyed the Chechen president's personal helicopter. It did not say where.