Yeltsin whips regions into line: Patriarch Alexi leads prayers for victims of rebellion while Gorbachev indicates he plans a comeback

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The Independent Online
PATRIARCH ALEXI II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, prayed for those who died in last week's Moscow rebellion yesterday as President Boris Yeltsin sought to strengthen his hold on the country by reforming the regional soviets which defied him.

The Patriarch, criticised by some of his own priests for his role in the days leading to the violence on Sunday and Monday of last week, told worshippers packing the Yelokhovsky Cathedral that all the victims were 'our brothers and sisters'. This reflected a general view by church and state leaders that all those who died should be mourned, whether they backed Mr Yeltsin or sought his overthrow.

The gold-robed head of the church, his voice at times raising to a shout, asked repeatedly how the defiance of hard- liners in parliament escalated into an armed revolt. 'No one in a modern society can thoroughly understand this event,' he said.

After the rebellion was put down by tanks last Monday and the two main instigators, Alexander Rutskoi, the Vice- President, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, the parliamentary speaker, were arrested in the White House, or parliament, Gleb Yakunin, a priest who was a prominent dissident under Communist rule, and other members of the clergy said the Patriarch should step down.

Alexi's failed mediation between General Rutskoi and Mr Yeltsin had served as a cover to give the hardliners time to plan their attempt to take over the main television station and other strategic buildings, Father Yakunin said.

The latest official figures, released at the weekend, put the number of dead from the two days of fighting at 142, with 39 bodies still unidentified. Of the wounded, only one was still in danger.

On Saturday, Mr Yeltsin extended the state of emergency for another week but reduced the hours of curfew to five, from midnight to 5am. In the first week, Muscovites had to be home by 11pm. Most nights since the fighting stopped, sporadic firing has been heard in the city but the Interior Ministry said violations were decreasing.

Fewer than 5,000 incidents, ranging from minor, such as car-drivers on the road after curfew, to more serious offences, such as the possession of firearms, were reported in the 24 hours up to Sunday morning, the ministry said. This was down from 8,000 on Thursday night and 6,000 on Friday. The number of vehicles caught out after curfew dropped to 162 from 369 four days earlier.

The most far-reaching development of the weekend was Mr Yeltsin's decision to set up a commission to present reforms for local and regional councils or soviets, many of which sided with parliament against him, by next Friday. Sergei Shakhrai, a deputy prime minister responsible for liaison with the soviets, told the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets that Mr Yeltsin had been too hasty. 'There is no need for a rush. I am in favour of gradual reform,' he said. The abolition of the councils, which Mr Yeltsin wants, would efface one of the last remnants of the Communist Soviet system.

Last week, Mr Yeltsin invited the councils to dissolve themselves as a prelude to local elections, which he said would coincide with voting for the new State Duma, or parliament, on 12 December.

All regions except Chechnya have agreed to hold local legislative elections on 12 December. Nikolai Riabov, head of the government's central electoral commission, said all regions had sent in the papers needed to hold elections, except for Chechnya in the Caucasus which declared itself independent from the Russian Federation in 1991.

There were concerns that some regions which backed the dissolved Russian parliament in its recent clash with Yeltsin would refuse to hold December elections.

In particular the former republic of Bashkir expressed reservations. Chechnya, which has had a continuing dispute with Moscow, has never been recognised as independent by Moscow.

As an opinion poll in the weekly Argumenty i Fakty showed that 78 per cent of a sample of Muscovites approved of Mr Yeltsin's handling of the revolt, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president and a bitter rival of the Russian leader, said in an interview that he was willing to return to politics to help Russia.

Some observers speculated that he was considering standing for the post of head of state in the presidential election that Mr Yeltsin said would follow the election of the new parliament. Mr Gorbachev's chances would be slim since his popularity abroad is not matched at home where he scrapes along the bottom of most opinion polls.

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