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Yeltsin's Troops Rout Rebels, Reclaim Parliament Building

By Susan Benkelman and Ken Fireman
Newsday

MOSCOW, Oct. 5

Troops loyal to President Boris N. Yeltsin seized control of the Russian Parliament building from armed rebels Monday in a whirlwind of fire, smoke and blood that broke the back of the rebellion and forced opposition leaders into surrender.

Casualty figures were uncertain early Tuesday but local media reported at least 32 dead and hundreds wounded. Other estimates were much higher.

Fires in the Parliament building continued to burn into the night. Fire brigades, unable to get close to the building because of sniper fire, finally began to extinguish the blaze early Tuesday morning. Snipers fired sporadically from inside the building, known as the Russian White House, where several dozen militants remained but were being cleared out by government troops, the news agency Itar-Tass reported.

Sporadic shooting also broke out during the night at several locations around the city, most of them in the vicinity of the White House, apparently coming from anti-government militants who were not part of the battle at the Parliament. The offices of a pro-Yeltsin newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets, and the Itar-Tass news agency were reported under sniper fire.

Yeltsin, who had declared a state of emergency Sunday night after armed rebels seized the mayor's office and part of the city's main TV tower, imposed a city curfew lasting from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m. and suspended the publication of communist, nationalist and other newspapers supporting the opposition. In an early-morning televised statement explaining the siege to the Russian people, Yeltsin promised prosecution for his adversaries.

"Those who unfolded this bloody battle are criminals. Those who wave red flags are once again covered in Russian blood," he said in a televised address. "The people will curse the criminals. There is no forgiveness for them because they have raised their hands against peaceful people."

The opposition leaders, deposed Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and Parliament Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, surrendered at dusk and were taken along with their military advisers to a former KGB prison for questioning.

Despite the bloodshed, Yeltsin retained the backing of world leaders, including President Clinton, who said the United States "continues to stand firm in its support of President Yeltsin because he is Russia's democratically elected leader."

Speaking at a convention in San Francisco, Clinton said: "It is clear that the opposition forces started the conflict and that President Yeltsin had no other alternative but to try and restore order. Clearly, he bent over backwards to avoid doing this. I think he may even wonder whether he let it go too far."

Yeltsin also won widespread backing from leaders of other former Soviet republics, who fear a triumph by his opponents could lead to a resurgence of Russian imperialism that would jeopardize their independence.

Late in the day Monday Yeltsin huddled in the Kremlin with leaders of many of Russia's 89 regions and republics, many of which are controlled by former Communist officials and industrial directors who fear Yeltsin's reforms will deprive them of power. Officials said that the president won the leaders' nearly unanimous support but that they also demanded he convene a session of the Federation Council, a body comprising regional leaders that could become powerful if Yeltsin leans on it for support.

The assault on the White House capped a government counterattack to a revolt that erupted Sunday after an anti-Yeltsin demonstration turned into a rampage through central Moscow. With the rebels seemingly in control of several parts of the capital the government systematically moved loyal military units into the city and forced the insurgents back into their stronghold in the Parliament.

The battle for the building, which began early Monday morning, started when armored personnel carriers moved toward the White House, drawing fire from troops inside. The government troops responded with automatic rifle and tank fire, beginning a daylong assault in which government troops cleared the 19-story building.

Shortly after the operation began, a tank fired at least two rounds into the heart of the riverfront building, starting a fire that left a large swatch of its marble facade blackened with smoke.

The intense firing from government forces paused for a time at midday to accept surrenders. An Interior Ministry official later asserted that the rebel forces had asked for the pause so that women and children could be evacuated, but then fired on the government troops attempting to help the evacuees.

Outside the White House, bodies were piled on the cement, including some of the guards who have stayed in the building for the past several days defending it. Those who came out alive surrendered in groups in late afternoon and were taken away in buses, presumably for questioning by authorities.

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Russian television showed a tape of Rutskoi, dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying a flak vest, and Khasbulatov, dressed in civilian clothing, surrendering at about 6 p.m. Moscow time. Both men appeared expressionless as they walked a short distance from a White House doorway to a waiting bus.

Other prisoners were herded against a stone wall near the main entrance to the building. As they waited there, a man in a white doctor's coat emerged from the White House and pounded his fist against two of the prisoners in anger.

Crowds of people attempted to get closer to the White House, some apparently with the aim of helping those inside, others to simply get a closer look at the scene. At one point, Parliament supporters managed to get to the building by way of the embankment of the Moscow River, but were repelled by government troops who fired into the air.

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The attack on the White House was Yeltsin's first decisive use of the military in the crisis that he precipitated on Sept. 21 by dissolving the Parliament and ordering new elections. The president and legislators, who stood together against a 1991 coup by hard-liners, have been locked in a bitter political stalemate over the degree and pace of economic and political reform.