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Russian tanks and artillery stepped up theirshelling of the presidential palace in Groznytoday, hours before Moscow offered a cease-fire beginning at midnight EST. Oddly, word of the possible truce first came from Sergei Kovalyov, Russia's human rights commissioner, who quoted Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, a rival of President Boris Yeltsin, as saying: "This is only the beginning of the negotiation process." The Russian announcement was unclear on whether a cease-fire could begin unless the Chechens agree to such severe terms as laying down their arms, retreating from key positions and accepting Russian political control.TIME State Department correspondent Ann Simmons, who is currently in Moscow, says the "confused and grasping" Russian military has been searching desperately for a face-saving strategy -- with no success so far. Today, Simmons reports, about 40 ofMoscow's once-feared special forces paratroopersslipped into Grozny, only to be captured by the Chechens: "The Russian military has in many ways become a laughingstock."