MOSCOW -- Fighting intensified throughout the day yesterday in Chechnya, but the Russian aim still seems to be to place maximum psychological pressure on the breakaway republic rather than trying to overrun it in a full-scale assault.
As heavy skirmishing was taking place on the outskirts of Grozny, the Chechen capital, President Boris N. Yeltsin's chief of staff warned last night that Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev had only "several hours" in which to order his men to lay down their arms.
Otherwise, said Sergei Filatov, there was the strong possibility of what he called "active events" in Chechnya during the night.
"The fate of Dzhokhar Dudayev himself will depend" on his decision, Mr. Filatov said.
Both sides talked about negotiating yesterday but neither agreed to do so.
The Russian government invited Mr. Dudayev to come to the military headquarters in the town of Mozdok to meet with Nikolai Yegorov, deputy prime minister, and Sergei Stepashin, chief of counterintelligence.
Mr. Dudayev countered by inviting Mr. Yeltsin to send a personal representative to Grozny. Late last night, the Russian government said that that was not a sufficient response to Mr. Yeltsin's offer.
"There will be no more answers to Dzhokhar Dudayev's telegrams," an official in Mr. Yeltsin's press service told the Itar-Tass news agency.
Because of poor communications -- and efforts by the Russian military to obstruct journalists in the region -- it was difficult to get a clear idea of yesterday's fighting.
Itar-Tass reported that Russian troops on the outskirts of Grozny had run into "fierce resistance" but were making headway toward the city. Chechen officials denied that their forces were engaging Russian units.
Jets and helicopters were hampered by bad weather that moved in during the afternoon, the news agency said, although earlier they had attacked five bridges over the Terek River as well as sites near the capital.
Mr. Dudayev said last night that the broadcasting center in Grozny had come under attack, and television stations reported that Russian bombs had hit a power station, plunging much of the city of 400,000 residents into darkness.
Four more Russian soldiers were reportedly killed yesterday, raising the total to 20 in the offensive, which began in the oil-rich, Caucasus Mountain region Dec. 10.
There were no official casualty reports on the Chechens, but reports reaching here yesterday also said that nine refugees who were trying to flee Chechnya were shot dead Saturday night by (( drunken Russian soldiers.
The incident occurred in the village of Nesterovskaya, about 30 miles from Grozny. Blood-covered footprints led from three crushed cars to bushes along the road, and the ground was littered with spent cartridges from a machine gun, the Associated Press said.
Lt. Gen. Valery Vostrokin, a deputy minister at Russia's Ministry for Emergency Situations, told Russian reporters that five men and four women were killed.
The discipline of Russian troops has been suspect throughout the crisis. Some of the soldiers have said that they would refuse to advance on Chechnya, where Moscow is trying to crush an independence movement and reassert authority.
Elsewhere, the flow of refugees was becoming a torrent. Officials in the neighboring Ingush semi-autonomous region said that 67,200 refugees had registered with them already, and they expect the total to climb past 100,000 in a few days. That would represent almost 10 percent of Chechnya's population.
Yegor Gaidar, leader of the Russia's Choice bloc of reformist legislators, called on Russians to turn out for street demonstrations against the Chechen operation.
"The main thing we can do today is to organize a mass protest which would force the executive authorities, force the president, to understand what kind of tragic madness they are being pushed into," he said.
Sergei Kovalyov, chairman of the State Duma's human rights committee, remained in Grozny yesterday as a witness and potential liaison to Mr. Dudayev's government. Presidential aides had reportedly tried to cajole the parliamentary leader into returning to Moscow, but he refused.
Mr. Kovalyov, a highly respected figure here who served time in Soviet prison camps, is apparently serving as an unwelcome reminder to the Russian government of the unpopularity of the military campaign.
Polls, whose reliability here is not always ironclad, suggest that solid majorities of Russians oppose the attack on Chechnya -- and suggest as well that these majorities are growing as time goes by.
Several weeks ago, the defense minister, Gen. Pavel Grachev, said that the Chechen question could be settled by a couple of divisions of paratroopers in a matter of hours.
Now, after a week of bluster and threats, of ultimatums and deadlines, of poor military organization and doubts over morale, it appears that the forces of the Russian government may be tied down for quite a bit longer than those in the thickets of the north Caucasus.