Yeltsin at war with hardline critics

PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin launched an offensive yesterday against his hardline Communist and Russian nationalist enemies, declaring that he would outlaw a militant opposition movement that has sworn to topple him from power.

With his reformist government under fire from all sides of the political spectrum, Mr Yeltsin denounced the newly formed National Salvation Front as a grave danger to Russia's young democracy and said it should be disbanded immediately. The Front, which groups military officers, former Communists and politicians of the extreme right, held its founding congress in Moscow last weekend and elected a leadership dedicated to Mr Yeltsin's removal.

'The Front calls for the overthrow of the lawful authorities, is destabilising society, and is setting people against each other,' Mr Yeltsin told Russian diplomats. 'This is not permissible, and urgent measures must be taken without ado. It is a terrible threat, but the West doesn't yet understand it.'

As Mr Yeltsin spoke, a fresh challenge emerged to the liberal wing of Russian politics when security force units surrounded the offices of Izvestia, a newspaper firmly in the democratic camp. The units belonged to a 5,000- strong guard loyal to Ruslan Khasbulatov, the speaker of the conservative- dominated parliament and a frequent critic of Mr Yeltsin.

Parliamentary leaders sent the units to enforce their decision last week to place the newspaper under the legislature's control and silence its criticisms of Mr Khasbulatov and the conservatives. 'I would not be surprised if they stop us entering the building tomorrow,' said Nikolai Bodnaruk, the deputy editor.

Liberal MPs fear that Mr Khasbulatov's force poses a threat to democracy because it is answerable neither to the Interior Ministry nor to Mr Yeltsin. They say its existence is all the more ominous in the light of the virtual state of war that the Front and other groups have declared on Mr Yeltsin.

Conservatives in the parliament threw down a challenge to Mr Yeltsin last week by blocking his attempt to delay a meeting of the supreme legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies. They voted to convene the Congress on 1 December and made clear they would use the occasion to press for the dismissal of several reformist ministers.

Prominent democrats, including Yelena Bonner, Andrei Sakharov's widow, voiced their alarm at the rising conservative tide in a public appeal which warned that opposition forces would not shrink from provoking a civil war to achieve their ends. Accusing the Communists and right-wingers of whipping up 'social and nationalistic hysteria', the democrats said hostility was being fanned against Jews, Ukrainians, Balts, Georgians, Armenians and any Russian deemed to be unpatriotic.

'The maturing coup need not take the form of an open putsch. A quiet, creeping revenge of the apparatchiks and nomenklatura is being prepared, with a view to wresting Russia from the civilised world . . . To be or not to be for Russia's reforms means today to be or not to be for Russia itself,' said the appeal signed by Mrs Bonner and other liberal politicians and intellectuals.

But one National Salvation Front activist, Alexander Medvedev, responded: 'We should unite to oppose all domestic and foreign provocations. Otherwise, mortars and sub-machine-guns will start to talk in Moscow and St Petersburg.'