As Russia steps up aerial bombardment in the breakaway region of Chechnya, and tanks and artillery direct a constricting siege on the unlucky few trapped in the demolished capital Grozny, conflicting media reports on hostilities are becoming both ammunition and fodder in arguments over the war.
Russian officials accuse Western media of providing Western states with false reason to "meddle" in what Russians call an entirely internal affair.
But critics of Russia's campaign, including Chechen representatives in Moscow, say the West - paradoxically influenced in part by Russia's positive coverage of the hostilities - is infringing on the rights of innocent Chechens by its failure to respond to Russia's actions.
"Why hasn't one country in the world extended a helping hand to Chechens in these hard times?" asked Aslambek Aslakhanov, All-Russian Islamic Congress chief and an ex-Interior Ministry general, during a news conference Wednesday.
Russian planes, often flying around 100 combat missions daily, bombed Grozny last week, intensifying their strikes after rockets hit a downtown market Oct. 21, killing at least 150 people.
President Boris Yeltsin said Wednesday Moscow would continue pushing forward with the campaign. Russian forces would "destroy the center of international terrorism in Chechnya and let people live calmly and peacefully," he said in a televised appearance.
Fighting on several fronts, Russian soldiers are taking control of numerous villages, according to the Defense Ministry. Russian forces on Thursday entered Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest city, giving Moscow's campaign a significant boost. Chechen rebels had said they would fight hard to repel Russian soldiers from the well-defended city.
Moscow first sent troops into Chechnya in September, saying it wanted to destroy Islamic militants who raided the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan last August. Russia also blames Chechen militants - despite a lack of proof - for explosions in four apartment blocks in Russia that killed around 300 people.
The government has sent conflicting signals about whether it will attempt to take Grozny, where Chechen rebels dealt Moscow a humiliating defeat during the 1994-96 Chechen war.
Russian officials insist the military only wants to destroy "Islamic terrorists." However, the campaign looks more like an attempt to reimpose Russian rule in the republic, and all evidence indicates civilians are bearing the brunt of that policy.
Analysts say the current conflict is inflicting significantly more damage on the local population than the previous one because of both the scale of the humanitarian crisis and the level of violence inflicted by Russian soldiers. Maskhadov claimed Thursday that 3,265 civilians had been killed so far in the conflict.
"There's been a humanitarian crisis for a long time now," Alsakhanov said. "People who are running for their lives have long forgotten what the taste of meat is."
Meanwhile, Western countries stepped up previously cautious criticism of the campaign in Chechnya after the Grozny market bombing.
U.S. President Bill Clinton condemned Russia's actions Thursday, saying the country should "stop fighting and start talking," Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, the United Nations said it would send a humanitarian mission to the region to help refugees following a European Union appeal in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Nonetheless, Chechen representatives say the West's response has been woefully inadequate. They also say Western states have complied with Russian policy by denying entry visas to former residents of Chechnya.
"As a Chechen and a Russian citizen, I am insulted by the West's reaction," Aslakhanov told The Russia Journal. "There are elementary codes of behavior, but when the U.S. Embassy stops giving visas to Chechens, that goes beyond immigration policy. Foreign governments are infringing on the rights of Chechens."
The U.S. Embassy denied withholding visas from Chechens. "We don't refuse visas to any category of person," said an embassy spokesman who asked to remain anonymous.
At the same time, Russian officials have heaped scorn on Western media for what they say constitutes an attempt to make the conflict in Chechnya into an international affair.
"The Western pronouncement that Chechnya is an international problem is unacceptable," Anatoly Yemilyenko, head of the Foreign Ministry's North Caucasus department, said.
Valery Kuznetsov, director of the Foreign Ministry Diplomatic Academy's international law department, echoed that opinion.
"The Western press is making a large mistake by trying to propagandize the issue to form the basis for international meddling," Kuznetsov said in a news conference Wednesday.
A central factor in the debate between critics and advocates of Russia's war in Chechnya is the radically different treatment given events by the Western and Russian media.
Russian reporters have largely portrayed the war as an honorable and successful fight against "terrorism." Even outlets that criticized the 1994-96 Chechen war, such as independent NTV television, now regularly broadcast from the top of mobile military personnel carriers, saying they are driving inexorably forward toward Maskhadov's bunker. Reports center their coverage on the statements of Russian generals confidently outlining battlefield victories and stating figures that show a negligible number of Russian soldiers killed.
During the previous conflict, NTV was instrumental in contradicting official reports and statistics and in galvanizing public opinion against Moscow's campaign.
This time around, the bulk of Russian journalists joined with the population in condemning Chechnya and supporting the government's hostilities.
On the other hand, the few Western correspondents covering the conflict generally report from besieged villages inside Chechnya. They are criticized in Russia for playing up the humanitarian crisis and for presenting rebel field commanders Shamil Basayev and Khattab as heroes.
Part of the problem is restricted access to battlefields. Both Russian and Western reporters are wary of being kidnapped in a region where hundreds of hostages are still being held for ransom.
At the same time, the Russian government has maintained tight control of military information. The release of the official version of events is orchestrated in only a few places, such as in Moscow's newly organized Rosinformcenter.
Russian forces arrested Times of London reporter Anthony Lloyd and a U.S. freelence photographer on the Chechen-Ingush border last week. Times Bureau Chief Giles Whittell cited reporting from the Chechen side as one of the reasons, Echo of Moscow Radio said.
Yemilyanenko unwittingly reflected the government's public relations strategy - based on lessons from the previous war - with a threat to Western reporters Wednesday. "It's not for nothing the press is called the 'fourth power,'" he said. "Journalistic opinion could easily spread to society, causing a large problem."