Nuclear stunt strikes fear in heart of Russia

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It may not compare with the havoc he caused when he took 1,000 Russians hostage, but Shamil Basayev will doubtless be rubbing his hands in glee after his latest stunt at the Kremlin's expense - the disclosure that a radioactive container was buried in the middle of Moscow.

Officials were compelled to use a network of sensors across the entire city to look for high radiation levels after the Chechen rebel disclosed the whereabouts of the "hot" package to a Russian television station, NTV, which tracked it down beneath a thin covering of snow in a park.

The Russian authorities, who sent three teams of emergency workers to the scene, sought to play down the affair by pointing out that the object was not particularly dangerous to human life, although it was giving off at least 30 times more radiation than the normal background level.

The Federal Security Service - one of the descendants of the KGB - said the object, found in Izmailova Park in east Moscow, contained caesium- 137, which is used in cancer research and therapy.

Officials said that their city-wide monitoring, using a network of 46 mobile sensors, had found nothing unusual - although this is small comfort to Muscovites, who know that the capital is dotted with hundreds of "hot" spots.

But the incident will have alarmed the Russian security services, which are bracing themselves for tomorrow's anniversary of the outbreak of fighting in Chechnya. Tensions in the republic have been further cranked up by the Yeltsin administration's plans to hold elections in Chechnya next month, which the rebels have vowed to disrupt.

Russia has long feared that the conflict will be brought to the streets of Moscow, a concern that has deepened in the last few days with the discovery and disposal of two mines near a city highway frequently used by government staff. Moscow officials yesterday announced they were tightening security on the streets, by throwing a new ring of police and traffic patrolmen around the city's perimeter and stepping up patrols at airports and stations.

Although they claimed this was unrelated to Mr Basayev's latest exploits, he has been taunting the Kremlin since he masterminded the commando-style operation which led to the hostage-taking in a town in southern Russia last June. The nature of his threats will send a chill down the spine of the toughest security official: he talks of mounting raids on Russia's nuclear power stations.