Gorbachev challenged on use of force in Baltic

January 13, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- After Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin and other republican presidents condemned the use of military force against Lithuania yesterday, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev agreed to halt troops' actions while a delegation assesses the situation in the breakaway Baltic republic.

Mr. Gorbachev, who was reportedly taken aback by the criticism, told republican leaders at a Federation Council meeting in the Kremlin that "until all circumstances are fully clarified, no pressure will be applied through force," Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov told reporters.

Earlier, Mr. Yeltsin and the rest of the leadership of the giant Russian Federation, which includes more than half the Soviet population, assailed Mr. Gorbachev's dispatch of paratroopers to Lithuania, where they have intimidated the population, blocked transport and seized key buildings.

"The use of military force against peaceful citizens in the Baltic republics is unacceptable," said a statement issued by the Russian leadership. "It could provoke an escalation of violence in those and other regions and unleash large-scale civil conflict."

Mr. Yeltsin repeated those objections -- and several other republican leaders joined him -- when representatives of the 15 republics gathered in the Kremlin for a Federation Council meeting, participants said.

The republican leaders also rejected an account of Lithuanian developments from Internal Affairs Minister Boris K. Pugo and Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov, who reportedly played down the military actions and claimed that troops were merely trying to keep peace between Lithuanians and Russians.

The Federation Council chose to send a delegation -- expected to begin work in Lithuania today -- led by Byelorussian President Nikolai Dementei, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Ukrainian poet and parliamentarian Boris Oleynik.

All are independent figures, particularly Mr. Ter-Petrosyan, a former nationalist activist jailed for six months by Mr. Gorbachev in 1988. Lithuanian officials said they expect the delegation to report objectively on the situation, and President Vytautas Landsbergis said that he felt "very moderate optimism."

Nonetheless, late last night, the Lithuanian Parliament approved plans to create a "temporary defense staff" and to fight back if attacked. The resolution said that the police and national guard, "in the event of an attack on the most important government installations, shall be empowered to resist any attackers."

In another boost for republican independence movements, Mr. Yeltsin on behalf of the Russian Federation signed a pair of treaties with Estonia yesterday recognizing the legal independence of the tiny Baltic republic.

Mr. Yeltsin said he had deliberately timed the treaty signing to give the Balts a moral boost in their current confrontation with Mr. Gorbachev.

But it was not clear whether the other republics' support had halted once and for all what appeared to be a Kremlin-inspired plan of conservative Lithuanian Communists, backed by the Soviet military, to overthrow the republic's elected

leadership and halt its independence drive.

A shadowy group calling itself the Lithuanian National Salvation Committee, apparently a creation of the small Lithuanian Communist Party still loyal to Moscow, said yesterday that it was prepared "to take full power into its own hands to prevent economic collapse and fratricidal war."

Such a statement by a party with minimal popular support would normally have been laughable. But the deployment of Soviet paratroopers in Vilnius and other Lithuanian cities last week and their armed assault on key buildings Friday and yesterday morning showed that the threat is serious.

The troops, wielding submachine guns and backed by tanks and armored vehicles, seized Lithuania's main printing plant and a building occupied by the republic's nationalguard on Friday. Early yesterday, they seized at least two police buildings.

Official Soviet sources, which had denied Friday that there were any injuries, admitted yesterday that eight civilians had been injured in the attacks, two of them gravely. They included a 29-year-old man shot in the face, allegedly by a warning shot that ricocheted, and a man whose car was hit by a tank.

In justification of the assault on the buildings, Vilnius' military commander, Gen. Grigory Belous, told the Tass news agency simply that the buildings "were not used by the republican authorities the way they should."

The Lithuanian government's information service reported that Soviet troops continued their show of force yesterday. In Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city, troops tried to seize the telephone exchange but were driven back by a large group of demonstrators, the information service said.

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