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Moscow's new security boss denies coup

Russia's new security supremo, Alexander Lebed, yesterday withdrew accusations that a group of generals had planned to put pressure on President Boris Yeltsin to stop the sacking of Defence Minister Pavel Grachev. Speaking to the State Duma (lower house), Gen Lebed played down the affair which he himself had made public on Tuesday, the day of Gen Grachev's dismissal.

Gen Lebed told the Duma that Gen Grachev's press secretary, Yelena Agapova, had tried to organise a campaign of telegrams from military units to the president to keep the minister in his job. He had intervened. "I sent a telegram to units in the Moscow military district ... telling them to stay calm and get on with training. There was a half-joking recommendation to the generals not to waste official funds on telegrams of condolence."

On Tuesday, Gen Lebed caused a sensation by telling a news conference he had forestalled a "GKChP-3" - suggesting a repetition of the attempted military coup in Moscow of 1991. He then described it as not a coup but as an attempt to put pressure on Mr Yeltsin by having the troops on alert, and insisted that several generals, whom he named as involved, should resign.

But yesterday Gen Lebedmade no mention of these allegations, saying that the affair - still under investigation by military prosecutors - had "no future in court".

The acting defence minister, General Mikhail Kolesniko, wrote to the Duma to deny reports that Gen Lebed's intervention on Tuesday had interfered with command and control over the armed forces.

General Viktor Barynkin, acting chief of general staff, told the Duma there had been no attempt to organise a coup. He said that only Mr Yeltsin, as commander- in-chief, had the right to put units on alert.

Gen Lebed, a reserve paratroop general, was named secretary of Mr Yeltsin's Security Council on Tuesday after coming third in the first round of the presidential election.

While MPs were still excited by the drama, ordinary Russians, if they thought about it at all, were taking it in their stride. The general view in the Russian media was that from all the manoeuvring since Sunday's vote, Mr Yeltsin had emerged stronger than his Communist opponent, Gennady Zyuganov, and, barring mistakes, stood a good chance in the two-man run- off next month.

"People will be much more inclined to vote for Yeltsin now," said Nina Derbina, a pensioner who, despite her anger over the war in Chechnya, had supported Mr Yeltsin in the first round because she regarded Communism as the greater evil. "We all hated Korzhakov and those cronies who were such a bad influence on our President."

In its editorial, the daily Moscow Times, said: "Yeltsin's house has been cleaned. For the first time in the election campaign, there is cause for hope - voters are not just being given a choice between evils."

The sackings seemed to have left the Communists reeling. Mr Zyuganov said they illustrated the dangerous rifts in the team around the President, but he did not make sufficient political capital out of the affair to woo the new voters he needs in addition to the constituency of mainly elderly people on whose support he can always rely.

Mr Yeltsin, on the other hand, is making inroads to the electorates of the other candidates who stood on 16 June. A large proportion of Gen Lebed's supporters are now likely to vote for Mr Yeltsin, though some may believe their hero has sold out to the Kremlin and so they will vote Communist.

Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko Party, expressed satisfaction with the dismissals. It is probable that Yabloko will throw its weight behind Mr Yeltsin at its Congress today and tomorrow.

The danger for Mr Yeltsin is that his supporters might become complacent. For the President to win, it is essential that the turn-out does not drop below 63 per cent. Which is why the second round has been set for 3 July, a Wednesday to overcome the "Dacha factor," - absenteeism caused by Russians spending summer weekends at their country cottages.