7 injured by troops in Lithuania Soviet soldiers seize two buildings

January 12, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Soviet paratroopers seized the headquarters of Lithuania's national guard and the republic's main printing plant yesterday, injuring seven people, as Moscow escalated its threats to force out the elected Lithuanian leadership and impose direct rule.

Tanks rolled through Vilnius in a new show of force, and key Moscow-controlled enterprises and air and rail workers went on strike against Lithuania's nationalist leadership. The small Communist Party still loyal to Moscow announced the creation of a Committee for the Salvation of Lithuania, which the parliament swiftly denounced as a "pro-Soviet puppet force."

Thousands of pro- and anti-independence demonstrators rallied in the city. Last night, Lithuanian volunteer guards swore an oath of allegiance to the republic, its parliament and President Vytautas Landsbergis and were proclaimed "soldiers of the Republic of Lithuania," the republic's information service said.

In Moscow, meanwhile, phone lines at the Interfax news agency, which had provided independent competition for state-run Tass, were cut at the orders of the new hard-line chief of Soviet television and radio, Leonid P. Kravchenko, who also banned indefinitely the outspoken interview show "Vzglyad" (View). Interfax had been operated by Moscow Radio employees from its premises.

The Russian Federation Ministry of the Press and Mass Media, headed by radical journalist Mikhail Poltoranin, a close ally of Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin, condemned the actions as "a prelude to open terror against glasnost."

The ministry's statement condemned what it called "open pressure on journalists, the elimination of whole issues of newspapers and the banning of television programs."

Evidence was growing that with world attention focused on the Persian Gulf crisis, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was seizing the moment for a general crackdown. He has made a series of conservative appointments and has stated that he will not permit the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Gorbachev told the Lithuanian Parliament on Thursday that he might impose direct presidential rule in the republic if it did not immediately repeal "anti-constitutional acts."

Rafik N. Nishanov, deputy chairman of the Soviet Parliament, read the latest in a series of tendentious accounts of Lithuanian events to the Supreme Soviet in Moscow yesterday.

He asserted that Lithuanian actions were against the will of "the simple people," who he said were demanding presidential rule from Moscow. In fact, recent polls showed that 70 percent of residents of the republic back independence and that Lithuania's most popular politician was Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene, who stepped down this week.

The Kremlin's moves and threats against the Baltic republics over the past week have met with widespread condemnation by Western officials and Soviet liberals. But Soviet citizens are so consumed in the struggle to buy food that major protests seem unlikely, and the West has muffled its criticism because of

concern about maintaining East-West unity against Iraq.

Indeed, when Mr. Gorbachev spoke on the phone yesterday with President Bush about the Persian Gulf, the Baltic situation was barely mentioned.

Mr. Bush's description of the conversation made it sound as though he simply reiterated his position that the Baltics are not legally a part of the Soviet Union and did not repeat the harsh rhetoric used by the White House earlier this week to protest the deployment of troops into the dissident republics.

Mr. Gorbachev is in conflict with other republics, notably Georgia, which has sharply rejected his order to pull Georgian police out of the disputed territory of South Ossetia.

But using an old-fashioned campaign of propaganda, intimidation and force, Mr. Gorbachev is making an example of Lithuania, which in March became the first of the 15 republics to assert its independence.

Republican officials said that four people received bullet wounds and three suffered broken bones when paratroopers forced their way into the two Vilnius buildings. The most serious injuries occurred when a Lithuanian student was hit in the face by stray bullets, fired by paratroopers over an angry crowd of protesters at the printing plant, according to republican officials.

Tass claimed that the troops had fired only blanks, but the wall of one building showed bullet marks.

In Moscow's view, the national guard headquarters is the property of the Soviet military, while the printing plant belongs to the Communist Party. Mr. Gorbachev has authorized the use of troops to protect property.

Mr. Landsbergis, who has become Moscow's nemesis, compared Soviet actions to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and accused the West of inconsistency.

"Why don't Western governments get on the hot line to Gorbachev?" he asked in a telephone interview with French television. "Today in Vilnius, soldiers shot at people, tanks charged at people. Only God's intervention prevented deaths."

After the paratroopers moved, Mr. Landsbergis called Mr. Gorbachev but was told that the Soviet president was at lunch and could not speak with him, Lithuanian officials said. Mr. Landsbergis left a message demanding that Mr. Gorbachev order a halt to the troops' actions.

Pro-independence activists stood guard last night at the Lithuanian Parliament, the telephone communications building and the television broadcasting center. But a parliamentary spokeswomen acknowledged that the guards were only "symbolic" and would not be able to defend the buildings.

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