Curfew keeps Muscovites on a tight leash

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'DOGS do not always understand the restrictions of the curfew,' said the militia major. 'So if we see a dog-owner walking his pet, we explain the situation to him and leave him alone.'

'If he's sober,' interjected a militia captain.

'If both the dog and the master are sober,' corrected the major.

Ten days into the state of emergency ordered by President Boris Yeltsin after armed supporters of hardline parliamentarians opposed to Mr Yeltsin tried to seize strategic buildings, the midnight-to-5am curfew has altered the behaviour of the city, clearing the streets of its usual bustling traffic and all but a handful of tottering revellers.

In the Yugo-Zapad, or south- west, sector of Moscow yesterday, the militia, backed at some places by Omon police commandos, began to check vehicles as midnight struck. While most Muscovites were off the streets, some public transport still functioned until 3am and the militia allowed some people to travel by bus.

'If a passenger can show a rail ticket and the bus is going to the station, we let him go,' said Major Alexander Shalimov of the traffic police.

Just as the curfew, set at midnight this week after an 11pm start all last week, went into force, a studious-looking young man and a matronly woman in a battered cream Lada were halted at a crossroads by Kalashnikov-toting militia in bullet-proof jackets.

After some discussion, the militia let the woman get on a passing trolleybus. 'It's my fault,' she appealed to them. 'I asked this young man to give me a lift. Please let him go. Molodoi chelovek (young man), I'm so sorry.'

As the trolleybus moved off, the driver said: 'Do I pay a fine or what? I live just a minute's drive from here.' A senior lieutenant, detached from the militia in the Siberian town of Tyumen for the emergency, told him another officer would decide.

The curfew has sharply cut common crime, Moscow's modern plague, and Major Shalimov said that not a single car had been stolen in the city for some days. It has also given the militia an opportunity to crack down. The Siberian lieutenant said his unit had found drugs in a nearby flat after becoming suspicious of its occupier.

In the first days of the curfew, the militia reported seizing weapons from crooks and detaining several thousand people for curfew violations. Into the second week, Major Shalimov said there were scarcely any serious offenders still risking arrest.

At one of the slip-roads leading to the outer Moscow ring-road, beyond which the curfew was no longer in force, a regular militia post was reinforced yesterday by Omon. One commando stood back from the road in a cluster of birch trees while colleagues checked vehicles. A Volga taxi screeched to a stop on the rain-soaked road. 'If he hadn't, we would have opened fire,' said Major Shalimov. Even those vehicles with a pass to travel during the curfew were searched. Apart from emergency service vehicles such as ambulances, others such as food trucks and public transport repair vehicles can move around.

At another point on the ring- road, a van bounced unwisely towards the city. Its driver and passenger were frisked. The van was empty. 'A drunk,' said the major. Looking at the driver's licence, he asked: 'How much have you had to drink, Alexander Borisovich? Tell the truth.' 'Nothing today, but I drank a bit yesterday,' said driver, in his mid-30s. 'You mean before midnight?' continued the major, grinning as he read the licence. 'Write it down - his name's Buntov]' he said. Bunt in Russian means 'riot' or 'rebellion'.

Repetition of the name raised a laugh among four Omon commandos at another checkpoint. They said they were from the 23rd Brigade, headquartered in Zagorsk, better known for its Russian Orthodox monasteries and churches. They said they had taken part in the assault on the White House, the rebellious parliament, on 4 October. They had a curfew tale to top all others. 'A drunken woman fighting with her husband just stripped off and paraded naked in front of us,' an officer said. 'Damn it,' said Major Shalimov. 'I wanted to start here and then I changed my mind. We missed it.'

(Photograph omitted)