KHASAVYURT, RUSSIA — THE battle for the Chechen capital of Grozny continues to rage amid signs that Russian forces have switched tactics in the rebel republic after suffering heavy losses.
President Boris Yeltsin has largely ignored criticism over the Russian assault and has continued to push for a rapid capture of Grozny, which would enable him to declare the war over and relieve him of political responsibility for the military fiasco.
But even if Russia does take the capital, Chechens are prepared to continue fighting from the mountains, depending on guerrilla tactics to keep the Russians at bay. The rebel fighters are by no means isolated in the center of Grozny, and wherever Russian troops go in Chechnya, they will likely be attacked.
Russian forces have resumed heavy air rocket attacks along the highway that leads south of the city in order to seal off the last clear access to the center of the city. Ground troops are also changing tactics and are attempting to destroy Grozny block by block, using tanks and heavy artillery. Russian spetsnaz, or elite troops, are also reportedly advancing on the capital, replacing the largely rag-tag forces Russia had deployed here until now.
''The Russians have changed their tactics, pushing in from different directions, with the spetsnaz,'' said Chechen Information Minister Movladi Udugov, speaking from the Chechen town of Gudermes.
Learning from mistakes
Reports of the change in tactics were difficult to confirm due to the extreme danger involved in approaching the Russian lines as fighting intensifies. But Mr. Udogov's account coincides with Russian reports that indicated the high command had acknowledged something had changed after their failed New Year's Eve offensive against Grozny.
This weekend, many shells from the relentless Russian barrage slammed straight into the Presidential Palace, setting it ablaze in several places.
Long a symbol of Chechnya's three-year-old independence drive, the concrete building has become both the center of fierce Chechen resistance and the prime goal of Russian efforts to seize the city.
Chechen fighters continue to operate out of the palace basement, an extensive underground labyrinth of bunkers and tunnels that until recently was also the home of separatist leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, who is now reportedly hiding outside the city.
They claimed one military victory on Saturday after Maj. Gen. Viktor Vorobyov, commander of a special Interior Ministry task force in Grozny, died when a mortar bomb exploded near him. He was the first senior officer killed since Russian forces moved into Chechnya on Dec. 11, according to the Itar-Tass news agency.
At least 256 Russian troops have died as of late Friday, the Interfax news agency said. It quoted Russian military sources as saying Saturday that about 2,500 Chechen fighters had been killed. Neither report could be confirmed.
Steady firing at the center from positions several blocks away from the palace has virtually destroyed every building in the area, from the once elegant Kavkaz Hotel to a string of high-rise apartment buildings on the avenue leading out of Grozny.
The Chechens' effectiveness in the face of Russian firepower thus far has been largely due to their fighting small, tightly knit units who enjoy great autonomy in decisionmaking. The men of a particular unit are usually of the same clan, from the same village or neighborhood, and in many cases are even close relatives.
This helps boost fighting spirit, while the men decide how best to defend or attack, depending on each particular situation. In contrast, the Russian forces have been mainly young conscripts who depend on commands from higher officers, leaving them highly vulnerable in the heat of battle.
This may all be changing now, with special forces better equipped to respond to the Chechen tactics. There have been reports of house-to-house combat as the Russians edge slowly in.
But despite this new more lethal phase of the battle, Chechen morale remains high, with more groups of men moving toward central Grozny than away from it.
And on at least one level, the Chechens may have fewer worries: The fearsome drone of bomber jets is heard less often now, although aerial bombing has not stopped entirely, despite Mr. Yeltsin's order that it do so last Wednesday.
By the weekend, an obviously irritated Yeltsin even called Defense Minister Pavel Grachev to explain why his orders were not followed, fueling speculation that sectors of the military are out of his control.
Refugee count rises
Refugees are streaming into the neighboring republic of Dagestan from villages south of Grozny that were bombed last week.
''It was terrifying. When we heard the planes coming, we scrambled to hide,'' said Malika Azizava, describing a massive attack on the village of Shali last weekend. ''I had left my home near Grozny a month ago, sure it would be safe there. And now we've had to to come here,'' she said, speaking at a kindergarten in Khasavyurt, a village on Dagestan's border with Chechnya where many refugees have fled.
At an anti-Russian rally Saturday in Dagestan's capital Makhachkala, scores of men responded to a call to sign up for a new ''Islamic Resistance Army'' if the siege of Grozny continues.
Speakers at the rally included Muslim muftis, or spiritual leaders, village elders, and members of the Dagestani parliament.
''If war comes to you, you must respond with war, and we are prepared to fight and die. We will make war on the Russians if they continue to kill the people,'' said Murat Gadjilamammaev, wearing a sheepskin hat characteristic of the Caucasian region.
''If they don't stop the horror, we Dagestanis also don't want to be part of the Russian Federation,'' declared Ali Aliyev, a member of the Confederation of North Caucasus People. ''We want nothing to do with an imperial state which kills people it considers its own citizens.''
Others told the crowd of several thousand that although Russia conquered the Caucasus in the 19th century, the people here never fully accepted Russian rule.
*Wendy Sloane in Moscow contributed to this report.