Russian Crisis: The last hours of the White House rebels: Helen Womack in Moscow describes the day the President's troops, tanks and helicopters took revenge on his enemies - World - News - The Independent

Russian Crisis: The last hours of the White House rebels: Helen Womack in Moscow describes the day the President's troops, tanks and helicopters took revenge on his enemies

SUNDAY NIGHT belonged to Boris Yeltsin's enemies as, after forcing police to abandon the White House area, they seized the the mayor of Moscow's office and attacked the Ostankino television tower with grenade launchers. But the dawn was the President's as he took revenge by launching an assault with tanks and helicopters on the parliament building.

The struggle dragged on until almost dusk because, Mr Yeltsin's military aide Dmitry Volkogonov said, the troops were eschewing haste to minimise casualties among innocent people. But it ended with members of the special forces running through the corridors of the maze-like, and by this time blackened, White House shouting 'Lay down your arms and follow us out' and with dozens of hardliners emerging with their hands over their heads. The rebel leaders, self-declared 'president' Alexander Rutskoi and parliamentary chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, were taken into custody and will be prosecuted.

This is how the day's events unfolded. At five o'clock in the morning, after some 62 people had been killed overnight, fighting died down at Ostankino and the broadcasting centre remained in the hands of pro-Yeltsin forces. The President made one last attempt to negotiate but his envoys came back empty-handed from acrimonious talks with representatives of parliament and it was clear further violence was inevitable.

The evening before, Mr Yeltsin had summoned paratroopers from Tula, south of Moscow, and the elite Kantemir tank division to help him enforce a state of emergency. Some of their armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were outside the White House and at 7.15 they came under attack from gunners inside the parliament building. At eight o'clock, troops and APCs loyal to Mr Yeltsin began circling the building and answering enemy fire. The noise and pall of smoke that hung over the city shocked commuters coming in from the suburbs to work.

At nine o'clock Mr Yeltsin appeared on television, looking grim and saying there could be no forgiveness for the leaders of 'this armed mutiny planned in advance. They (Mr Rutskoi and Khasbulatov) hoped that the citizens of Russia would believe their lies. They hoped for quick victory. But the armed mutiny is doomed. Troops are entering Moscow to restore order, calm and peace.'

Thirty-five minutes later helicopters armed with rockets were hovering overhead to back up ground forces advancing on the White House in a blaze of gunfire. At 9.40 troops, supported by tanks, stormed parliament and quickly took two floors of the building. Mr Rutskoi immediately appealed for talks with Mr Yelstin. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin replied that the assault would only be stopped if the rebels surrendered their arms and came out waving white flags. A white flag did appear at one window and, at 10.15, Mr Chernomyrdin ordered shooting to stop in that section of the building. But although Mr Rutskoi seemed ready to surrender, Mr Khasbulatov, who has reneged on countless agreements with the President, said desire for a ceasefire and negotiations did not mean the parliament side was giving in, so fighting continued.

The pressure finally forced out a few unidentified men with white flags at 1.30pm and they held talks on the embankment of the Moscow River with the President of the Caucasus region of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev. Gunfire continued to crackle but was now less intense. Then at 3pm Mr Yeltsin's Defence Minister, General Pavel Grachev, arrived for more negotiations and the battle was effectively over.

Hostages and journalists who had been trapped in the White House were released and hardline fighters began coming out with their hands in the air. For some time the whereabouts of Mr Rutskoi and Mr Khasbulatov were unclear and Muscovites speculated that perhaps they had committed suicide to avoid capture. But as darkness fell, they too came out and were driven away in buses to a 'place of safety'.

Hardline generals Albert Makashov, Vladislav Achalov, Andrei Dunayev and Viktor Barannikov were also arrested.

By this time Mr Yeltsin, who spent the night and early part of the day in his Kremlin office, had gone home. But not before he had issued decrees banning conservative newspapers such as Pravda and Den and ordered an 11pm to 5am curfew, a necessary measure since a few snipers were still shooting into the evening, though the main battle was over.

Earlier in the day the President's aide, had said 500 people had been killed in the White House but he later withdrew this, saying a defector had exaggerated the toll. Whatever the final number of victims, it will still be large.

Mr Yeltsin's assistant, Sergei Stankevich, said: 'The President is really sad that he did not manage to prevent this outbreak of violence. But at the same time he is absolutely sure that he did his best to continue negotiations. The full responsibility for this violence is placed on the leaders of the White House.'

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