Yeltsin's 'power ministers' offer to quit over hostage fiasco

In a dramatic political gambit by President Boris Yeltsin, Russia's "power" ministers - defence, interior and the domestic arm of the old KGB - and three other senior officials, offered to step down yesterday, over the Chechen hostage-taking fiasco in Budennovsk.

Rather than announcing an immediate reshuffle, Mr Yeltsin, who is under strong pressure to reshape his administration, gave himself nearly two weeks to ponder which members of his hawkish inner circle to sacrifice

Ivan Rybkin, chairman of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's legislature, said the offer of resignations had been made at a session of the Security Council, which serves much the same function as the Politburo in the Soviet system.

President Yeltsin summoned the Security Council after mayhem earlier this month in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk, where heavily armed Chechen rebels held more than 1,000 people hostage in a local hospital, survived a botched assault by Russian troops and then fled back to Chechnya in buses provided by the government.

"Today we must decide who is to blame for the events in Budennovsk," Mr Yeltsin told the meeting. "The events in Budennovsk demonstrated to the Russians and to the whole world a low level of competence by the special services in resolving complicated tasks."

An unnamed Kremlin official said the resignation offers were designed to give Mr Yeltsin a "certain freedom of political manoeuvre", and made clear that not all would be accepted. The comments suggest a manoeuvre by Mr Yeltsin ahead of a parliamentary vote of confidence in the government of the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, expected tomorrow.

Behind such consideration lies a long battle for influence in the Kremlin. Nearly all the officials who tendered their resignation, including the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, and the Interior Minister, Viktor Yerin, are associated with the disastrous seven-month war in Chechnya. Their influence recently has waned in favour of Mr Chernomyrdin, who negotiated with the Chechen hostage-takers and seeks a negotiated end to the war.

Mr Rybkin, the parliamentary chairman, said the President will "consider every [resignation] offer, I think, before July 10, taking into consideration the investigation which is still under way." The investigation, however, is not impartial. It is led by Oleg Lobov, one the officials supposedly ready to step down.

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