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Yeltsin bases 'decree' stirs hornets' nest in Latvia

RUSSIA denied yesterday that it intended to establish new military bases in Latvia, as tension mounted in the Baltic states, writes Adrian Bridge. Vyacheslav Kostikov, spokesman for President Boris Yeltsin, said the country's inclusion in a list of former Soviet republics where Moscow planned to set up bases was a 'technical error'.

But in Latvia's capital, Riga, government spokesmen requested clarification. Some suggested a deal on the pull-out of the 12,000 Russian troops still in the country by the end of August may be at risk. The exchanges followed a Yeltsin decree on Wednesday suggesting Moscow planned to set up or maintain 30 bases in neighbouring countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States and Latvia.

Riga called the decree a cave-in to Russia's 'reactionary and imperialistic circles' and demanded retraction; it urged Moscow to reaffirm last month's deal, under which Russia vowed to withdraw all its troops in return for use for four more years of its radar facility at Skrunda.

The Yeltsin decree coincided with Russia saying it no longer felt bound to stick to the 31 August troop pull-out date from Estonia. Janis Eichmanis, Chief of Staff in the Latvian presidency, said: 'The whole incident confirms our feeling that Russia is trying to . . . undermine Baltic independence.'

In Moscow, Andrei Kozyrev, Foreign Minister, said neither the Defence nor Foreign Ministries had been consulted over the decree. 'We do not know where this order came from . . . When such incidents occur . . . we are put into a very unpleasant situation.' A diplomat in Riga said: 'Perhaps it was all down to a drunken secretary in President Yeltsin's office.'