Yeltsin meeting with Gore fails to dispel health fears

President Boris Yeltsin made his first public appearance for three weeks yesterday, holding a 45-minute meeting with the US Vice-President, Al Gore, at a health resort outside Moscow. An American reporter who witnessed the start of the meeting in the village of Barvikha said Mr Yeltsin moved stiffly and appeared to be in some physical discomfort when seated with Mr Gore, but the Vice-President said the Russian leader seemed to be in good health.

"I think he is relaxing and getting some needed rest, but to me he looks good. On every score, President Yeltsin was actively engaged and seemed in very good shape to me," Mr Gore said after the meeting.

Despite these reassurances, there was no explanation of the extraordinary incident on Monday when, at the last minute, Mr Yeltsin postponed his meeting with Mr Gore for a day on the grounds that he had decided to take a holiday. Mr Yeltsin had two mild heart attacks last year, but his aides attributed his absence from public view after 26 June to nothing more than a cold and a need for rest after a lengthy and hard-fought election campaign.

Some European leaders remain unconvinced that all is normal in Moscow. President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland said: "The fact that today it is not very clear who is in charge in the Kremlin is a problem, but one must express hope that President Yeltsin's problems are temporary and he will be the one to take matters into his hands."

Mr Yeltsin's retreat from the public gaze coincided with the breakdown of a truce in Chechnya and a new Russian military onslaught against separatist rebels. However, to judge from an official Russian account of Mr Yeltsin's talks with Mr Gore, it seems improbable that Russian forces were capitalising on the President's poor health to act without his authority.

His press spokesman, Sergei Medvedev, said Mr Yeltsin had told Mr Gore that negotiations with the rebels formed the main direction of his policy, but that Russia still needed to protect itself against "bandit" formations. Russia's Interior Minister, Colonel Anatoly Kulikov, later blamed the rebels for two trolleybus bomb attacks in Moscow last week which wounded 33 people. He said it was too soon to talk of pulling out Russian forces by 1 September, as agreed in Mr Yeltsin's pre-election truce with Chechen commanders.

n Stary Atagi, Russia (Reuter) - The brother of the Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev said yesterday that he and his family, including his mother, narrowly escaped death when Russian helicopters fired rockets into their home.

Residents said the house of Suleiman Yandarbiyev, 37, the guerrilla leader's younger brother, was one of five in the southern Chechen village of Stary Atagi hit by guided missiles on Monday evening. No one was killed.

"This is state terrorism," Suleiman Yandarbiyev said. "When a trolleybus gets blown up in Moscow, it's a tragedy for Russia. When they bomb villages and kill civilians in Chechnya, it's the fight against terrorism. They just treat us like animals."

Suleiman Yandarbiyev said he was sure that the attack had been deliberate, with him and his family as targets, although he insisted that there were no armed guerrillas in Stary Atagi.