4 killed in assault by Soviet riot troops in Latvia

January 21, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Soviet riot troops attacked the Latvian police headquarters in Riga last night, starting an hourlong gunbattle that left at least four dead and nine injured, according to Latvian television and eyewitnesses.

The troops also reportedly broke down the doors of the Hotel Ridzene, where Latvian President Anatolijs V. Gorbunovs was holding a meeting. He was reported unharmed.

Eyewitnesses described a wild scene in the center of the city, with tracer bullets lighting the sky, automatic weapons fire and an explosion echoing through the streets and smoke rising from burning vehicles.

The four dead were Andris Slabinsh, a cameraman for Latvian television; two Latvian policemen; and a civilian, apparently killed by a stray bullet.

Two other television cameramen, one for Finnish TV and the other for the Soviet show "Bzglyad" ("View") were injured, Latvian television reported.

Early this morning, the special troops known as "black berets" were holding several floors of the Latvian Ministry of Internal Affairs headquarters and had replaced the Latvian republican flag on the building with a red Soviet flag.

Latvian government officials were appealing on the radio to all republican police officers to come fully armed to the capital.

The "black berets" in Riga answer to the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs in Moscow, while the Latvian Ministry of Internal Affairs headquarters directs the republican police force and obeys the republic's pro-independence leadership.

The assault by the "black berets" took place a week after Soviet army forces seized Lithuanian broadcast facilities in Vilnius, leaving 14 dead and 163 injured.

In both cases, Moscow-loyal troops acting without provocation seized republican facilities by force.

The decision to attack the Riga building, whether taken by Moscow or local officials, was made in defiance of Western and Soviet public opinion. Western leaders, including President Bush, had demanded that the Kremlin stop using force against Baltic institutions. More than 100,000 people had marched earlier yesterday in Moscow to protest the Lithuanian attack and demand President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's resignation.

The motive for the attack was unclear. Latvian officials telephoned Internal Affairs Minister Boris K. Pugo and Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov to find out whether the orders had come from Moscow.

According to Latvian television, Mr. Pugo at first said he knew nothing about it, then said that any conflict must have been provoked by the Latvian police.

Mr. Yazov said he was not in charge of the black berets.

The assault came one day after the Latvian Public Salvation Committee, a self-appointed body loyal to Moscow and including many Communist Party officials, said it was seizing power in the republic. Latvian officials, who scoffed at the claim, said the "black berets" were taking orders from the Communist Party.

One official said the black berets were trying to confiscate the arms belonging to local police.

But Anton Gustaitis, a Latvian journalist who relayed information to The Sun by telephone, said he thought the goal might have been simply to restore the Soviet flag as a piece of political symbolism.

As a Latvian police official, Zenons Indrikovs, was speaking to a live broadcast on Latvian TV, troops burst in and the broadcast was cut off. Officials later reported that he had been arrested but not harmed.

The black berets have been charged in 10 crimes committed in Riga in the last few weeks, the most serious being the fatal shooting Wednesday of the 39-year-old driver of a government car.

Anatoly Denisov, a member of the Soviet Parliament who led a commission to assess the situation in Latvia, told reporters earlier yesterday that he feared clashes between the republican police and the black berets. The commission reportedly left Riga last night before the attack began.

Mr. Denisov, by no means a radical, also said that a "coup in one republic could lead to coups all over," suggesting that he feared the military would seize power in the Baltic.

Last night's shootout was likely to heighten emotions at an emergency session of the Russian Parliament that is to deal with the Baltic crisis.

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