GROZNY, Russia (AP) _ While Russian forces pounded Chechen rebel positions around the capital of Grozny on Wednesday, hundreds of volunteers gathered in the city to head off to battle and others stood guard, armed with grenade-launchers.

The heavy presence of seasoned fighters in Grozny underlined Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov's claim that Chechnya is determined to prevail against the larger and better-equipped Russian army.

Russia ``will come here to have peace talks with us. It will all end in peace talks,'' Maskhadov predicted in an interview published with the Russian newspaper Vremya.

``But thousands of soldiers will die first,'' Maskhadov said.

The Russian army has acted gingerly in its three-week ground campaign, relying on air strikes and artillery shelling to soften up rebel positions in the hills and mountains of southern Chechnya before sending in troops.

The Russians moved into Chechnya to establish a security zone to prevent Chechen militants from invading other regions in southern Russia, following two incursions by Chechnya-based Islamic militants into neighboring Dagestan. The militants are also suspected in a series of bombings in Russia that killed some 300 people.

Russian forces apparently have control of the flat and open northern third of the republic, and are venturing into the central and southern sectors where the terrain makes them more vulnerable to guerrilla attacks.

In the 1994-96 Chechnya war, Russia suffered devastating losses in street fighting in Grozny and the army has not ventured into the capital in this campaign. Russia launched heavy air strikes on Grozny in September, but in recent days the city has been spared.

About 300 male volunteers assembled on Wednesday to head for the front, and other fighters took up positions at various points in the city, especially around large factories.

The Chechen military command said its fighters and Russians clashed in Naurskaya and Goragorski, both about 28 miles northwest of Grozny. A regional commander, Col. Rezvan Elbiyev, said Russian forces appeared to be preparing another assault on the town of Bamut, in the foothills about 28 miles southwest of Grozny.

The Russian Defense Ministry also reported fighting near the village of Zyebir-Yurt, northwest of Grozny.

The Chechens say their fighters were in well-fortified positions, and their losses had been minimal. They claimed to have killed 150 Russians in Naurskaya alone, but that figure could not be confirmed. Both sides have made casualty claims that appear inflated.

Maskhadov said Chechen casualties had been relatively light because fighters had not confronted Russian armored columns on the open plains north of the Terek River. But the fighting will intensify if the Russians make a move for Grozny, in the center of the republic, Maskhadov said.

In another development, Russia's Federal Security Service claimed that Islamic militants in the Caucasus region were receiving assistance from sources in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Tens of thousands of dollars had been funneled through the Caucasus Islamic Center in Dagestan, the region to the east of Chechnya, said Vladimir Smirnov, head of the security service in Dagestan. Authorities have closed down the center, he said.