Knives out at Kremlin over hostage fiasco

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Humiliated by Chechen guerrillas who held 1,500 people hostage in a hospital, Russia's bungling security forces yesterday squabbled over what had gone wrong and what should be done now, flooding the capital with troops in a show of force ostensibly aimed at preventing terrorism.

In another sign of the confusion and recrimination gripping Moscow's feuding political elite, the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, approved a vote of no-confidence in the government. The vote, 241 to 72, is non-binding and was scheduled before the hostage crisis but marks another blow to the authority of President Boris Yeltsin, his rule increasingly marked by long periods of absenteeism. Away in Canada for much of the hostage drama in Budennovsk, he has barely been seen since his return on Monday.

A Kremlin spokesman said Mr Yeltsin saw "some weak points" in the cabinet but would stand by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

More than 7,000 Interior Ministry troops yesterday joined a security clampdown that has put armoured troop carriers on all main roads into the capital. Some 9,000 more soldiers will follow. Key facilities are to be guarded by 4,000 paratroopers.Helping to patrol streets will be cadets from military academies.

Shamil Basayev, the Chechen who led the murderous but meticulously executed raid on Budennovsk, was yesterday back in rebel-held territory in the mountains of Chechnya, near Vedeno. Some 150 Russians, most of them hostages from the hospital who travelled with Mr Basayev and his men as a "human shield", yesterday returned safely to Budennovsk.

Igor Mezhakov, deputy head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the latest incarnation of the former KGB, said "all power structures" had joined a hunt for Mr Basayev. But Russia's Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, contradicted this, saying it was too late to launch any such a mission, Interfax reported.

Mr Basayev's brother, Shirvani, was reported yesterday to have joined a Chechen team negotiating with Russian officials in the capital, Grozny, over a possible end to the war. An end to hostilities in Chechnya was the main condition set by Mr Basayev before he freed his hostages in Budennovsk.

Russians authorities are divided on whether to continue with peace talks now the hostages are free.

The fiasco in Budennovsk, where Russian troops tried to storm the hospital before Mr Chernomyrdin stepped in to negotiate with Mr Basayev, has provoked bitter recrimination among the "power ministers" - Defence, Interior and FSB, in the ascendant and united, at least in public, since the start of the war in Chechnya in December.

Mr Grachev, who had publicly urged a military solution to the hostage crisis, is now scrambling to distance himself from the bloody but unsuccessful attempt to storm the hospital. He told Interfax the assault was the work of the Interior Ministry and the FSB, both of which maintain their own armed forces.

He suggested his own ministry take over control of armed units currently commanded by rivals. In remarks certain to infuriate Viktor Yerin, the Interior Minister, and Sergei Stepashin, head of the FSB, he said: "Leaders of these ministries should become deputy defence ministers."

The only clear political winner is Mr Chernomyrdin, whose telephone negotiations with Mr Basayev were broadcast on national television and won plaudits for averting further bloodshed. His success, though, has aggravated Kremlin intrigue, as it is now Mr Chernomyrdin, not Mr Yeltsin, many Russians would like to see elected president next June. Izvestia newspaper predicted yesterday that Mr Yeltsin might use a no-confidence vote in parliament to remove Mr Chernomyrdin as a potential rival. Another threat to Mr Yeltsin is a campaign by the Communist Party to get him impeached. Some 100 members of parliament - 50 short of the necessary 150 - have signed a motion to initiate convoluted impeachment proceedings.