Yeltsin 'too tired' to get off his aircraft

PERHAPS it was the fear of another Shannon airport drinking session that deterred a shy Boris Yeltsin from venturing out of his jet during his stopover in Ireland yesterday.

When the Russian President's Aeroflot jet touched down shortly after noon, his Irish host Albert Reynolds, the Taoiseach, was waiting with local dignitaries and a band. The red carpet was rolled out to the aircraft steps.

The welcoming party waited for Mr Yeltsin to emerge from his Tupolev. And waited. And waited. Mr Reynolds' growing embarrassment was only partly concealed by his newly acquired Australian suntan.

When an air hostess carried Mrs Reynolds' bouquet for Mrs Yeltsin on board, it was clearly a no-show. Mr Reynolds made do instead with a half-hour chat with Oleg Soskovets, a first deputy Russian premier, and an invitation to visit Russia.

Mr Yeltsin's non-appearance was variously attributed by Russian officials to being 'indisposed' and to being 'very tired and sleeping'.

Mr Reynolds insisted: 'It's not an embarrassment. Mr Yeltsin is unwell and I sympathise. I do not feel there has been any sort of snub. When a man is ill, a man is ill. President Yeltsin suffers from high blood pressure and the advice of his doctors was that it would be better for him not to get off the aircraft.'

However, when Mr Yeltsin landed in Moscow last night, he said that he was 'perfectly well' and denied that illness had prevented his meeting with Mr Reynolds. He said he had slept through his stopover at Shannon. 'I'm going to tell you the truth. The trip lasted 18 hours and I simply slept. My bodyguards should have woken me but they didn't. That's what happened.'

Mr Yeltsin has suffered some health problems, including a back strain and a heart complaint. His sudden absences from government functions have often seemed more often attributable to drinking than to ill health, according to Kremlin- watchers.

He is known to like a drink. During ceremonies in Berlin last month to mark the withdrawal of the last Russian troops from Germany, the Russian leader stumbled after a champagne lunch, seized a conductor's baton to direct an orchestra and, on another occasion, grabbed a microphone and sang tunelessly.

Five years ago, the sternly teetotal Mikhail Gorbachev's image took a jolt during a similar Shannon stopover after a Moscow photographer caught him unwittingly downing his first whiskey.

The Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, had lured him into downing a full-strength Irish coffee - a drink invented at Shannon as a pick-me-up for exhausted transatlantic travellers in the days before jet airliners.

With his Government at last achieving a measure of stability, Mr Yeltsin was perhaps keen to avoid such pitfalls. No doubt his embassy in Dublin had warned him Mr Reynolds had gone off the rails in the last month, ending 58 years of abstinence with a celebratory glass of champagne after the IRA ceasefire.