SERNOVODSK, Russia (AP) _ The chief doctor at the hospital in this western Chechen town is desperate to spread the word: Sernovodsk is not harboring any Chechen fighters.

``Tell the world that we are under a great threat today. At any time they could begin bombing,'' Ali Satulayev said, waving a typewritten appeal to local and Russian officials to spare the town's 12,000 residents and 9,000 refugees.

The appeal was signed by 17 town leaders, from the police chief to a veterans' leader to factory, farm and school directors.

``We have no armed groups at all, nor any kinds of lawbreakers,'' it said. ``The residents of Sernovodsk turn to you ... to defend us from possible arbitrary use of force and outrages by Russian troops ...''

Sernovodsk is rare in western Chechnya in that it has not seen fighting between Russian forces and the Chechen separatists they have been battling for two months.

The town, which is on the rutted main road across Chechnya, has drawn refugees from more volatile corners of the republic, especially the capital, Grozny.

But a report on Russia's state-controlled Vesti news program that Chechen fighters were gathering in Sernovodsk meant an attack was imminent, Satulayev said Saturday.

``It's a provocation,'' he said. ``If they need to, the authorities can send a mission to check _ there are no fighters here. Do you see anyone with a gun? If there is one, we'll take care of him ourselves.''

Sernovodsk has reason to worry. It is just 5 miles from Samashky, where clashes between residents and Russian forces have destroyed houses and killed an unknown number of civilians.

Thousands of people have been killed in the war over the breakaway republic, and battles have now shifted from Grozny to Chechen villages. Russian servicemen say the villages harbor fighters.

Russian armored personnel carriers patrol the roads around Sernovodsk, and helicopter gunships buzz it ominously day and night.

``War is war, and today's peaceful population could include fighters tomorrow,'' said Lt. Col. Vladimir Pugachev, who is stationed at the Russian staging base of Beslan, where the helicopters are based.

Most of the people in Satulayev's full, 40-bed hospital are elderly men and women wounded by shrapnel in the bombing of Grozny.

In one room were five young men recovering from shrapnel wounds who claimed to be Chechen fighters wounded in the capital. Like many villagers across Chechnya, they vowed to resist Russian rule to the death.

``They're all just wounded people,'' a nurse standing in the doorway said. Later in the day, a few residents of Sernovodsk drove about 20 miles to Nazran, the capital of neighboring Ingushetia, to urge journalists and human rights observers to bear witness to Sernovodsk's danger.

``We have 20,000 people here,'' Satulayev said. ``It could be a catastrophe.''