Moscow street battles eclipse talks: As anti-Yeltsin demonstrators clash with police, Andrew Higgins sees the power struggle in the capital spreading throughout Russia

HUNDREDS OF demonstrators opposed to President Yeltsin attacked police with iron bars during street battles in Moscow yesterday.

According to one report, riot police fired into the air to disperse the most violent protest in five days of clashes near the besieged White House parliament building. A policeman was killed after a driver lost control of his car near the protests. One interior ministry serviceman and a policeman taking part in a blockade of the White House were also seriously injured. Twenty-nine people were injured, including 24 policemen, in clashes between police and demonstrators blocking Moscow's Garden Ring road. Two policemen were seriously injured.

The confrontation cast a pall over stumbling negotiations mediated by the Russian Orthodox Church between the Kremlin and opponents of Boris Yeltsin, who were holed up inside the parliament.

Some progress was reported, not on a broad political settlement, but on the more immediate problem of disarmament in and around the White House. A 'weapons for power' deal worked out on Friday collapsed when parliament refused to surrender hundreds of guns in return for a resumption of electricity.

Alexander Rutskoi, the opposition's chief leader, seemed in no mood for compromise. 'Rise up and join the fight against dictatorship,' read an appeal to the Russian people sent out in his name from the encircled parliament building. Earlier he visited government troops around the White House and urged them to defect to his side. Mr Yeltsin, he said, was turning a superpower into a 'banana republic'.

While an opinion poll suggested that three-quarters of the population remained utterly indifferent to the mounting crisis, conservative legislators and their supporters have vowed to defend the White House to the death. Albert Makashov, a Soviet military commander sacked for involvement in the August 1991 attempted coup, yesterday warned pro-Yeltsin forces camped outside not to attack, saying that all entrance tunnels had been mined.

Amid escalating rhetoric from the Kremlin and its opponents in the disbanded parliament, the government announced that it had ordered that security be sharply tightened over railways, oil pipelines and electric installations.

Mr Yeltsin ignited the confrontation when he declared himself in sole charge of Russia until elections in December for an entirely new 450-member parliamentary body.

Mr Rutskoi, Mr Yeltsin's sacked vice-president who was declared president by the rump parliament, is holed up inside the White House with about 100 of the original 1,000 Congress deputies. The others have fled, fearful or seduced by a 2 million rouble pay-off offered by Mr Yeltsin. The arsenal of those left is awesome: they are believed to have 1,600 automatic weapons, 18 machine guns, 10 sharpshooter rifles and 12 grenade launchers.

The bellicose mood at the White House and on the streets contrasted with farce at the Danilovsky monastery, the official seat of the Russian Patriarch and venue for the peace talks. The day began with the chief parliament negotiator, Yuri Veronin, arriving half an hour late, then insisting that he could not discuss anything until parliament was given television time. After words from the Patriarch and hurried phone calls, the talks began.

Dressed in a long black coat as sombre as his face, Mr Yeltsin inspected Interior Ministry troops stationed around the White House yesterday morning, and declared: 'There are terrorists in there keeping people hostage.' His opponents say no one is being held against his will.

Most worrying for Mr Yeltsin are the increasing signs of disintegration of the Russian Federation. Siberians have formed the Siberian Accord Association and threatened to cut the trans-Siberian railway, halt oil supplies and seize sweeping autonomy unless Mr Yeltsin lifts the blockade on parliament. Less militant but also anxious is the Northwest Association, a regional grouping that is meeting in St Petersburg.

In Moscow, representatives from more than 60 regions and republics announced the creation of a new body, the Council of Members of the Federation, apparently to undermine a similar organisation set up by Mr Yeltsin.

The regions often mirror the centre, with power split between local councils, generally conservative-dominated, and more reform-minded regional governors. Mr Yeltsin also has his own representatives in each region, but they are politically isolated, underfunded and frequently outfoxed by local barons, who are almost invariably the former Communist Party bosses. As in Moscow there is much posturing and rhetoric, but just as the White House, its tunnels booby-trapped and halls stuffed with guns, could explode, so too can the Russian Federation.

(Photograph omitted)

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