Gorbachev endorses army's attack on Lithuanian protesters

January 15, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said yesterday he learned of Sunday's bloody Soviet army assault on Lithuanian demonstrators only after it took place, but he made it clear that he approved of the army's action, in which 14 people died and 163 were injured.

Mr. Gorbachev's first public comments on the bloodshed left little doubt that he is determined to force Lithuania and the other Baltic republics to repeal their independence declarations and rejoin the U.S.S.R., even if it costs lives.

In an address to the Soviet parliament and a talk with reporters, he expressed no condemnation of paratroopers' seizure of Vilnius broadcast facilities, in which they used tanks and automatic weapons against demonstrators standing vigil outside.

"All the actions of the [Soviet] president, the government, and other institutions, including the army, could not have been otherwise," Mr. Gorbachev said. "No other action could have been taken and no one had the right to expect anything else."

He rejected the overwhelming condemnation of the troops' action in the West and showed little concern about the potential damage to U.S.-Soviet relations.

"So many events happen here, and in the West, and in the East, that we have to keep cool heads. I think we should seek answers here, and the West should take a constructive position," he said. "This is not the time for confrontation and knocking heads, though there are those who want that."

Troops occupied a small radio broadcasting station used by the nationalist organization Sajudis in Vilnius yesterday and forced out the staff, Lithuanian officials said. No one was injured, they said, but the action appeared to violate an agreement of military officials to refrain from any action yesterday.

In Riga, Latvia, officials appealed last night on the radio for citizens to gather around makeshift barricades at the parliament building in anticipation of a possible assault by troops.

A major confrontation appeared to be looming between Mr. Gorbachev and Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin, who has moved to defend the Balts' right to independence. He told reporters yesterday that the army's moves were "the beginning of a powerful offensive against democracy" and that he believes Mr. Gorbachev is under heavy pressure from right-wing forces.

Mr. Yeltsin repeated his appeal to Russian soldiers not to use force against peaceful citizens. He also said he had become convinced that it would be necessary to create a Russian army separate from the Soviet army in order to defend the giant republic's sovereignty.

Mr. Gorbachev laid all responsibility for the bloodshed on the elected leadership of Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis and the republican parliament and the declaration of independence it passed last March.

While the independence declaration is the subject of passionate debate, with about 70 percent of the population supporting it, the clash of views had not caused a single death in the republic until Sunday's army attack.

Specifically, Mr. Gorbachev said the assault on the television broadcasting center was necessary to stop an anti-Soviet propaganda campaign by republican authorities.

He expressed support for the self-styled Lithuanian National Salvation Committee, a shadowy organization that claims to be seizing power with the backing of the Soviet military and Communist Party.

He said members of the committee tried to go to the parliament and government headquarters to demand the cessation of broadcasts but were beaten back by nationalists wielding sticks and iron bars. The committee members then made the decision to take over the television center and appealed to Maj. Gen. Vladimir Uskhobchik, head of the city's army garrison, for "protection."

"The form of protection was determined by the commandant himself," Mr. Gorbachev said. General Uskhobchik reported to his superior, the deputy commander of the Baltic Military District, the president said. He and other officials said no order came from Moscow, but none was necessary under military rules for the city garrison chief to order use of force within the city.

The version of the Vilnius events given by Mr. Gorbachev, as well as by Internal Affairs Minister Boris K. Pugo, Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov and much of the official Soviet media, contradicts the accounts of witnesses on several points.

Most significantly, the Soviet officials allege that many demonstrators were armed and that they shot first. Lithuanian officials say there were no firearms, or at least very few, used by the demonstrators. Of the 14 people killed, one was a soldier, shot in the back. The other 13 were demonstrators.

Mr. Gorbachev portrayed the National Salvation Committee as a broad-based organization representing many, if not most, residents of the republic. But the committee has not made its membership known and operates from a closed defense plant in Vilnius.

Lithuanian officials were disturbed by Mr. Gorbachev's moral support for the troops' actions, which they said in effect grants the army carte blanche to act as its officers see fit and let Mr. Gorbachev know later.

The National Salvation Committee has expressed its intention to "take all power into its hands." A parallel committee was announced yesterday in Latvia, and Moscow-loyal Communists in all three Baltic republics have called for the dissolution of the elected parliaments.

Meanwhile, within the Soviet media, a battle developed over which version of the Lithuanian events to tell the public.

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