Soviets blame 13 killings in Vilnius on Lithuanians

June 04, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Ignoring the testimony of dozens of eyewitnesses and videotapes, the Soviet prosecutor general's office yesterday issued a report claiming that the 13 Lithuanians who died during the seizure of Vilnius broadcasting facilities in January were not killed by Soviet troops.

The conclusion contradicts massive evidence published by both Soviet and Western sources and suggests that the regime of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is unwilling or unable to acknowledge the truth about the Vilnius killings. The report was immediately denounced by Lithuanian officials as disinformation.

Last night, hours after the report was released, dozens of Soviet paratroopers appeared on bridges and at major crossroads in central Vilnius and began checking the documents of people on the street, said Saulus Navikas of the Lithuanian Parliament's information bureau.

Several people reportedly were arrested and then released, and after four hours the troops began withdrawing. The goal of their deployment remained uncertain.

The appearance of paratroopers on Vilnius streets followed several weeks during which Soviet "Black Beret" troops attacked border posts of the Baltic republics, in some cases burning the buildings and beating the employees. Kremlin officials said they had not ordered the attacks but emphasized that the border posts were illegal under Soviet law.

Some Moscow political observers questioned whether the string of events might be part of an attempt to upset the renewed warm relations between the West and Mr. Gorbachev, who is to go to deliver the Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo tomorrow.

Many Soviet hard-liners oppose the Western financial assistance Mr. Gorbachev is pressing for and the political compromise with independence-minded Soviet republics that appears necessary to attract such aid. The incidents come in the midst of delicate negotiations with Western leaders about aid and a possible Gorbachev invitation to the summit of so-called G-7 economic powers next month in London.

The report on the Vilnius bloodshed repeats the widely discredited original official version of the assault. That blamed Lithuania's pro-independence leadership for whipping up passions and asserted that nationalists attacked troops with "knives, sticks, metal rods and intensive automatic gunfire."

Juozas Gaudutis, the Lithuanian investigator in charge of the republic's probe, said Soviet investigators did not participate in autopsies on the victims and refuted their claim that the civilians were killed by nationalists' bullets or by automobiles.

The Lithuanian prosecutor in February released a detailed account of autopsy findings for the 13 civilian victims, saying they were killed either by 5.45mm bullets fired from the paratroopers' AKM-74 rifles or crushed by tanks. Western and Soviet journalists present at the scene corroborated the Lithuanian version.

Russian Federation television, which is independent of the Kremlin, openly questioned Prosecutor Nikolai Trubin's 15-page report, calling its conclusions "strange." The Russian TV report included video clips of the assault on the night of Jan. 12-13, showing the troops were clearly the aggressors against peaceful demonstrators.

The Vilnius violence was the culmination of a gradual turn away from reform and toward hard-line tactics on the part of the Kremlin that disillusioned many previous supporters of Mr. Gorbachev's. The Soviet president said he had heard about the assault only the next morning, but he justified it according to approximately the same formula.

A few days later, under intense pressure from both the Soviet democratic movement and Western governments, Mr. Gorbachev appeared to distance himself from the violence.

By contrast, the Russian Federation leader, Boris N. Yeltsin, flew to Estonia immediately after the killings and signed mutual-aid agreements with the leaders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. He also appealed to Russian soldiers in the Baltic republics and elsewhere not to use arms against peaceful civilians.

To stop the broadcasting would have required merely cutting some cables. Many Soviet democratic activists concluded that the killings and the use of tanks and other equipment were deliberately aimed at frightening non-Communist political forces throughout the country.

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