Unpaid miners stage strike against Yeltsin

In an echo of the industrial turmoil that helped to kill off the Soviet Union, as many as half a million Russian coal miners staged a one-day warning strike yesterday to protest at the economic misery gripping scores of mining towns from the Paci fic to the Black Sea.

However, instead of a major challenge to the government, the action spoke more of the desperation of an impoverished but once powerful lobby deeply frustrated by its declining political and economic clout under President Boris Yeltsin, once hailed by Soviet-era miners as their hero.

"The coal mining regions are balancing on the brink of a social explosion," warned Russia's independent miners' union in an open letter to President Yeltsin.

The miners' principal grievance is economic - payment of some £470m in owed back-pay - but, as during strikes in 1989 and 1991 that badly rattled the Kremlin, anger is curdling into demands for political action too.

Itar-Tass news agency reported that striking miners at three pits in the Tula region south of Moscow were demanding the resignation of the government and early presidential elections. Others in Rostov-on-Don said they planned to picket the Moscow White House.

Sharpening anger over unpaid wages is Moscow's ability to find billions of additional roubles to pay for the two-month war in Chechnya. Such resentment adds to Mr Yeltsin's political woes, particularly as miners once counted themselves as his most loyal constituency. But while they can hurt him through the ballot box in parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of the year and a presidential poll next summer, they have lost much of the economic leverage that made them such a force in the Soviet Union.

The power of some 800,000 people employed in Russia's coal industry to influence decision-making in Moscow has diminished sharply since the Soviet era, when they served as Mr Yeltsin's battering ram against Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership and the entire Soviet system.

nGrozny (Reuter) - Chechen rebels have decided to withdraw their military headquarters from Grozny but will keep fighters in the city, an aide to the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev said yesterday.