Lebed says Russian army close to mutiny

Kremlin vacuum: Security tsar plays `Jekyll-and-Hyde' politics as the president's health crisis leaves a worrying gap at the top
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In remarks which sound suspiciously like those of a man firing an early rocket in a presidential campaign, Alexander Lebed has attacked the Russian government for failing to fund the military, warning that the army is in such disarray that it may soon mutiny.

With Boris Yeltsin's future still uncertain, Mr Lebed singled out one of his main rivals for power, the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, saying his administration was "burying its head in the sand" over a "national disgrace".

Mr Lebed, 46, a former paratrooper general, has never made any secret of his eagerness to hold ultimate power in the Kremlin, a job that Mr Chernomyrdin is widely thought to have his own eye on. But this time he was more explicit than usual, saying that he had a "plan" to save Russia, but not the powers "because those belong to the head of state".

The timing of his remarks, published in an interview with the Vechernaya Moskva newspaper, suggest that his ambitions have overridden any delicacy he might feel about the condition of the President, who is to have a heart bypass operation within six to 10 weeks.

On Tuesday, Mr Lebed, head of Russia's Security Council, stunned Western observers when an interview was published by the Daily Telegraph in which he said Russia would take economic sanctions against Germany and the US if Nato pressed ahead with plans to expand into Eastern Europe.

Even by his usual standards of outspokenness, his comments were virulent, posing a fresh - and crucial - question mark over his Jekyll-and-Hyde politics. Although he is moderate on some fronts, such as free speech, his hardline credentials are mounting. His press office dismissed the Daily Telegraph interview as fraudulent, but there is little doubt that it took place.

His latest outburst was clearly popularist, an appeal especially aimed at the army, where he already has a large following, although some senior officers accused him of selling out Russia in his peace deal in Chechnya.

Indignant over the budget allocated to the military, Mr Lebed also accused Mr Chernomyrdin's government of deliberately trying to "drown" the Defence Minister, General Igor Rodionov, one of his allies. He said soldiers, who have not been paid for months, were committing suicide in despair.

Some had turned to begging and stealing to survive; others had been treated in hospital for malnutrition. Although other senior government officials have been sounding the alarm about the chaos in the army, Mr Lebed was as explicit as any: "an armed uprising may occur this [autumn]," he said. He vowed to defend his tough stance on the Atlantic alliance next month when he goes to Brussels for talks with Nato.

If Mr Lebed's enemies are alarmed by signs that he is on the campaign trail, so, too, will they be by his latest ally: General Alexander Korzhakov, Mr Yeltsin's former bodyguard and confidant.

Mr Korzhakov claims to have a stack of compromising material about top people in the Kremlin. Mr Lebed - until now a man with the reputation of being Mr Clean - appears ready to jump at the chance of acquiring some mud to sling, saying that he "can well relate" to his fellow general.