General's coffin brings home blood of battle

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The Independent Online
Perhaps for the first time since the war in Chechnya began a month ago, the men who started it yesterday confronted its consequences in the flesh - the mangled body of one of their own in an open wooden coffin.

They gathered at the drab concrete headquarters of the Interior Ministry to pay their respects to Major-General Viktor Vorobyov, a Russian commander killed on Saturday by mortar fire in the centre of Grozny.

While the bodies of scores of conscripts killed in action still litter the ravaged streets of the Chechen capital, and the corpses of many more civilians have been left to rot in their bombed-out homes, the fate of General Vorobyov is less easily forgotten or ignored.

His remains, flown back to Moscow by military transport, have brought the blood of what had been a distant battle in the Caucasus into Moscow's sheltered corridors of power.

The exact circumstances of his death, like nearly everything else in this conflict, are still unclear. As commander of Interior Ministry troops sent into Chechnya with the regular army and paratroopers, he is the most senior Russian officer to die in thefighting.

On hand to view General Vorobyov's coffin before it was flown on to his home region of Stavropol were the key actors of what critics of the campaign revile as the "party of war" - a narrow circle of Kremlin aides with seats on President Yeltsin's secretive Security Council.

Mourners included Viktor Yerin, the Interior Minister, Oleg Lobov, secretary of the Security Council, and Oleg Soskovets, a conservative first deputy prime minister. All kept their feelings to themselves. While lesser officials followed pallbearers carrying the coffin into the street, they stayed hidden from view inside the heavily guarded ministry building. President Boris Yeltsin stayed away altogether.

Many mourners were less reticent. "We should restore order but this whole thing is a tragedy," Vladimir Rezichenkov, a uniformed Interior Ministry officer who had worked with General Vorobyov, said. "We have lost one of our best generals, a man with a crystal clear soul."

Young soldiers drafted in to form an honour guard grieved less about the loss than their own grim prospects: if the war goes on, they, too, may be sent to fight. "I don't want to go anywhere near Chechnya," said one.

How many Russians have died trying to unseat Chechnya's despotic but elected leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, and end his secessionist rebellion, is not known.

According to the last official count, issued last week, the regular Russian army had lost 116 men, the paratroopers, 100, and Interior Ministry, 40. The Russian press, however, has put the total military death toll as high as 1,800. Aside from General Vorobyov, few victims have been named.

The reality on the ground in Chechnya is hardly a secret. Russian television, to the Kremlin's fury, has beamed it into living rooms across the country each evening.

Russian newspapers write of little else, and anxious mothers stand in front of the Defence Ministry in Moscow demanding to know what has happened to their sons.

Sterile official jargon, however, had tried to hide the carnage in a fog of comforting, bloodless phrases about "restoring constitutional order" and "disarming illegal armed formations".

Yesterday funeral music came to the heart of Moscow. At the end of the closed-door wake, for General Vorobyov, soldiers with red and black armbands loaded the coffin on to the back of a red bus off Oktyabrskaya Square, one of the capital's busiest intersections.

A military band played a dirge, filling the icy air with the soulful sounds of the no longer far-away war.

A small crowd of spectators gathered at the Interior Ministry gates. Few seemed satisfied with President Yeltsin's explanation of why so many people have had to die.

"This war is a crime," said an elderly history teacher peering through iron railings as soldiers placed a lid on the open casket. "It should end immediately. This minute, this second."