Soviet troops attack borders, Baltic officials say SOVIET UNION

May 24, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Soviet "Black Beret" troops ransacked and burned at least eight Latvian and Lithuanian border posts early yesterday, beating and humiliating republican customs officers, republican officials reported yesterday.

Russian Federation television, which is not subject to Soviet censorship, showed footage last night of border posts reduced to smoking ruins and ransacked premises. It said two Lithuanian border guards were seriously injured in the attacks.

Last night, a carload of armed troops appeared at a border post in the third Baltic republic, Estonia. The post had been reinforced by heavily armed Estonian policemen, however, and the troops took no action, the Baltfax news agency reported.

In incidents in all three republics, witnesses reported seeing Leningrad television journalist Alexander Nevzorov, a Russian nationalist with KGB connections. Mr. Nevzorov is notorious for earlier reports portraying Soviet troops as heroes for defending Russians in the Baltic republics.

Both the Latvian and Lithuanian government sent telegrams of protest to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and to the Soviet ministries of defense and internal affairs.

"The character of the provocative actions by Internal Affairs Ministry troops, carried out simultaneously, gives reason to suppose that these bandit attacks are planned with the agreement of central organs," said the Latvian telegram, signed by President Anatolijs Gorbunovs and other officials.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius warned in his telegram: "Only a few steps remain to open confrontation."

The attacks were the latest of many instances of Soviet troops' unpredictable violence in republics that are seeking independence.

Soldiers appear to have blanket approval for attacks aimed at frightening or pressuring democratically elected secessionist governments, and Moscow officials no longer even bother to explain or defend their troops' behavior.

The aggression, resembling that of a hostile and undisciplined occupying army in a foreign country, obviously is tacitly sanctioned by Mr. Gorbachev, since it has continued for months. But because the violence appears to be local and random, the Kremlin has largely avoided taking responsibility for it at a time when it is seeking massive economic aid from the West.

For nearly a month, Soviet army and Ministry of Internal Affairs troops, along with Azerbaijani "Black Beret" forces, have been attacking Armenian villages in both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Officially, the operation is aimed at disarming Armenian militants, in accordance with an order from Mr. Gorbachev. But Armenians, backed by dozens of non-Armenian eyewitnesses, say at least 50 people have been killed in what amounts to the forced deportation of Armenian civilians from their homes.

In Georgia yesterday, at least one man was killed when two armored personnel carriers burst into the village of Kodari and opened fire, the republic's mission in Moscow reported. It identified the dead man as Timur Iarganashvili, a Tbilisi man visiting his relatives, according to the Interfax news agency.

Presumably it is not a coincidence that precisely the five republics involved -- the Baltic republics, Armenia and Georgia -- have been the most assertive in expressing their determination to achieve full independence.

In many instances, the worst offenders have been the so-called Black Berets, known in Russian by the initials OMON -- special-purpose police units. They are local riot police and SWAT teams originally created to help fight organized crime.

But particularly in the Baltic republics, they have come to resemble vigilante squads operating at the orders -- or sometimes just the hints -- of the Moscow-based Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Border posts have been set up by the Baltic governments over the past year, after their declarations of independence. They are aimed mainly at preventing the large-scale export of goods in short supply and at reinforcing the republics' assertions of statehood.

But Moscow has refused to recognize the independence declarations and has subjected the Balts to various forms of pressure, ranging from the oil embargo on Lithuania last year to open violence against civil demonstrators this year.

The Russian Federation, which has declared its sovereignty but not its complete independence, has not been the target of Soviet troops' violence.

But many democratic activists suspect the Kremlin of complicity in the explosion May 16 that wrecked the headquarters of Democratic Russia, the country's biggest anti-Communist opposition movement. The KGB is investigating the bombing and has so far offered no public statement on any findings.

Oleg D. Kalugin, a dissident former KGB general and now a member of the Soviet parliament, told The Sun that he did not expect anyone to be charged in the bombing -- because, he said, the KGB itself undoubtedly organized it.

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