Russian Crisis: Rebels hunted down after Yeltsin victory

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The Independent Online
The Russian White House was ablaze last night, abandoned by all but the most mad of its defenders, bombarded throughout the day by tanks loyal to President Boris Yeltsin and left, like Russia's cataclysmic political crisis, to burn itself out amid the din of wild sniper fire, sirens and confusion.

Seizing the emergency powers he had granted himself only a day earlier, Mr Yeltsin clamped the city under a night-time curfew and issued decrees closing down his extremist opponents' newspapers and banning their political organisations.

Alexander Rutskoi, Ruslan Khasbulatov and other White House leaders were all captured alive, driven away in a bus under armed guard, imprisoned at the Lefortovo Prison, notorious for its associations with Stalin's Great Terror, and threatened with prosecution for treason.

There could be no doubt that President Yeltsin had won, if victory it still is after a day of violence far worse than anything seen in Moscow at the time of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. He had smashed what, in a brief pre-recorded television address aired at the start of the assault, he called a 'Communist-fascist mutiny'. Moscow had been saved, supporters said, from a second October revolution. And, with the world's second most powerful military showing no signs of serious division, the world seemed saved, for now at least, from the nightmare of civil war in a country with 10,000 nuclear warheads, a spectre raised on Sunday when demonstrators burst police lines, turning 11 days of confrontation between president and parliament into a clash of arms.

But last night there was still danger enough in the streets of Moscow. Fires raged out of control at the White House, the battered parliament building pounded into submission by a barrage of fire from government tanks and machine guns - watched by Muscovites lining the Kalinin Bridge - and then torched by its fleeing garrison. Tracer fire arched above high-rise office blocks along Novy Arbat, machine guns chattered near the Stalin skyscraper of the foreign ministry, and snipers aimed at pedestrians near the American embassy.

Rebels launched a brief attack on the Moscow's main television studio last night, but it was far less threatening than an assault on Sunday night that left 62 dead. Television studios were also a target in St Peterburg, where some 1,000 anti-Yeltsin demonstrators demanded air time.

Several newspapers, including Pravda and the far-right weekly Den, were ordered closed, though editors said they expected the ban to be temporary. Fighting raged at dusk yesterday around one of Moscow's main printing presses, run by Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. Mr Yeltsin also declared illegal the 'red-brown' National Salvation Front, the Russian Communist Party, the neo- fascist Pamyat and the Officers' Union, an assembly of embittered retired or sacked Soviet officers.

There was sporadic gunfire at the White House itself, where Itar-Tass news agency said 300 fighters had refused to join a mass exodus and would fight on despite the surrender of their leaders, Mr Rutskoi, Mr Khasbulatov, the parliament's self-styled Defence Minister Vladislav Achalov and their militia chief, Albert Makashov. By early this morning, though, nearly all seemed to have fled and were being hunted down by government forces.

Mr Yeltsin's aides emphasised elections - not a crackdown. Elections in December for a new legislature lie at the heart of the turmoil. They were ordered by Mr Yeltsin in a decree which he himself conceded was unconstitutional and his opponents condemned as tantamount to a coup but which the Kremlin said was necessary to break the 18-month political standoff with the Soviet-era legislature.

(Photograph omitted)

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