Knights saved the day: Elite squad snatched TV centre from rebels' hands

BORIS YELTSIN came within 30 seconds of losing the battle for the Russian television centre last Sunday night - and with it, conceivably, the second October Revolution.

His saviours were an elite detachment of Interior Ministry troops called 'Vityaz' or 'Knight', which won a bizarre race across Moscow with the men they later fought for control of the television centre.

The 80 or so men from Vityaz had been by the White House parliament building on the other side of Moscow when they were summoned urgently to the virtually unguarded Ostankino television complex. They set off in a group of armoured personnel carriers (APCs), catching up with the motley anti-Yeltsin forces heading in the same direction.

At about 5pm, crossing the Garden Ring road, I was transfixed by the sight of cheering rebels waving red flags and, beside them APCs packed with troops. The immediate impression was that a second Bolshevik Revolution had begun, with at least part of the army rebelling against Mr Yeltsin.

In fact, the APCs that trundled alongside the rebels contained the handful of pro-Yeltsin Interior Ministry troops who defended the centre throughout that evening.

'We arrived literally 30 seconds ahead of them,' said one of the soldiers in a filmed interview last week. When they turned up at about 5.30pm, everyone admits that Ostankino had, at best, a token defence. The Vityaz men were on their own against the mob until the first reinforcements - five more APCs - arrived four hours later. No army troops turned up until after midnight.

The main Russian television channels broadcast from Ostankino. If the centre had fallen, Alexander Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov, denied access to the media throughout the crisis, would have had the opportunity to spread their rebellion to the regions.

It was a beautifully clear night at Ostankino when the White House supporters rolled up in commandeered lorries, trailing red and nationalist flags. Most were unarmed. Some sported batons and riot- shields they had won as booty from frightened militia outside the White House.

Inside, a handful of guards crouched on the dark stairs. The dissident ex-general, Albert Makashov, leading the rebels, bellowed at the guards that they had three minutes to get out. First one lorry rammed the glass facade, then another; armed men pressed against the shattered windows.

A third lorry careered into the building, strewing glass everywhere. Then a grenade was fired and machine-gun fire exploded from inside.

The presenter on the main television channel, weeping, said that broadcasts could not go on much longer. Programmes were blacked out. Radio Mayak went off the air.

I was half turned away when the firing began. With a sea of others, I ran and dropped down, and ran again as the bullets roared overhead. There were desperate scenes as reporters and demonstrators huddled behind low walls and vehicles. Near the lorries, bodies lay on the ground untended. Two cameramen, Rory Peck and Yvan Skopan, were killed outside, filming in; another, Sergei Krasilnikov, died inside, filming out.

A man called Dima lay bleeding from the side and groaning at the feet of my colleague. We kept on talking to him as we tried to obtain help. Eventually a street-cleaning lorry turned up, and we hoisted him on to a riot-shield and into the front seat.

For four hours, standing to one side, we tuned into portable radios and heard that tanks were coming - but the army was nowhere to be seen. At 9.15, five more APCs rolled up to the building. By dawn 15 APCs were on the scene, the demonstrators had fled, and the buildings were safe.

It had seemed close, and it was. The arrival of the five extra APCs was crucial. Sergei Yegorov, an experienced war correspondent, kept filming the whole night, crawling around the corridors with the Vityaz men. 'One of the guys told me, if those APCs had come five minutes later, it would have been too late.'

Thomas de Waal is a reporter with the Moscow Times