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Yeltsin's old enemies free to take revenge: Release of rebels forces march towards the abyss

AN OLD lady threw two red carnations and spat poison against America. A retired colonel in a Red Army fur hat took Polaroid snaps. A jolly grandfather waved a communist red flag. And everyone cheered as Alexander Rutskoi stepped from Lefortovo Prison, wearing a long grey beard to remind them of his five months inside but also a freshly ironed Air Force officer's uniform pinned with a Hero of the Soviet Union gold star to rally them for Russia's march towards the abyss.

Flanked by his wife in a long mink coat, the former vice- president smiled, clenched his fist and then drove off in the back seat of a grey Mercedes to relaunch his assault on the Kremlin, stalled five months ago by the tanks of Boris Yeltsin, but now set for another, possibly even bloodier, confrontation. 'Rutskoi, President, Rutskoi, President,' chanted a small, shivering but dedicated crowd.

The question now is how many of Mr Rutskoi's former colleagues in the Military Academy - just a block away from Lefortovo - and barracks across the country agree that a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and the battle for Moscow last October should rule the country. Most will bide their time. But, with Mr Rutskoi's call to arms from the balcony of the Russian White House last year now effectively vindicated by a parliamentary amnesty, the momentum towards a new armed revolt, perhaps civil war, must accelerate.

Yesterday was the great and absolutely legal escape from what in the Soviet era was the most secure and feared jail in the empire. As well as Mr Rutskoi, the former vice-president who for two weeks tried to rule as president by candlelight in the White House, a dozen other sworn enemies of Mr Yeltsin walked free, too.

Ruslan Khasbulatov, speaker of the disbanded Supreme Soviet, drove out of a side door of Lefortovo but stopped the blue Audi long enough to profess: 'I am of course innocent.' Also freed was Albert Makashov, a cashiered Soviet officer who led the murderous assault on the Ostankino television centre. All were the beneficiaries of an amnesty decision approved last week by a margin of 252-67 in the state Duma.

On hand to claim credit was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist rabble rouser who, with a powerful bloc of Communist Party MPs, secured the amnesty. 'We promised and we have released him,' said Mr Zhirinovsky. 'We will liberate everyone.'

President Yeltsin, his authority seeping away by the day, suffered the taunts in silence. But, after two days of doing nothing, the Kremlin yesterday morning did ask the prosecutor general to suspend the amnesty. It was too late. All Mr Yeltsin achieved was the departure of another liberal ally from government: the prosecutor, Alexei Kazannik, resigned, saying he could not meet Mr Yeltsin's request to block the release, because he had no legal grounds.

'This act will be the most shameful in the history of the Russian parliament,' Mr Kazannik said. 'There are many people tainted with murder.'

Mr Rutskoi's departure from jail was a rather more dignified occasion than his arrival, when he and Mr Khasbulatov were marched at gunpoint into a bus and driven to Lefortovo. Yesterday, he could easily have been a celebrity checking out of a luxury hotel. Well-groomed men in long coats packed his luggage into the boot. An aide mumbled into a walkie-talkie as the Mercedes sped off through the ice and snow.

And all this against a gorgeous cloudless sky, the likes of which have not been seen in Moscow since the day the tanks stained the skyline with streaks of black smoke on 4 October. More than 140 died then. And not since October has Russia seemed so perilously close to the edge.

Finance ministers from the world's seven richest industrial nations yesterday said Moscow must provide concrete evidence of progress on containing inflation and the budget deficit before getting more international assistance, writes John Eisenhammer from Bonn. The G7 ministers are worried about a weakening will in Russia to push through economic reform.

(Photograph omitted)