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Tuesday, Aug. 20, 1991

Thousands defy curfew to protect Yeltsin headquarters

MOSCOW, Aug. 20, 1991 (UPI) - Thousands of Muscovites early Wednesday defied an overnight curfew imposed by the Kremlin's new hard-line leadership to protect Boris Yeltsin's Russian government headquarters in a showdown against Soviet mechanized troops. At least two people were killed.

The confrontation came as Soviet Premier Valentin Pavlov was replaced on the ruling State of Emergency Committee due to ill health, and the independent Soviet news agency Interfax issued an unconfirmed report that two other members of the eight-man panel had quit.

Soviet forces also were reported to have moved against the Baltic republic of Latvia and the second-largest Soviet city, Leningrad. These reports had not been confirmed.

In Moscow, sporadic automatic weapons fire could be heard in the area of the Russian government building for about 90 minutes beginning at midnight, but as dawn broke four hours later there had not yet been a move directly against the building or the main body of demonstrators.

Witnesses, including a Western correspondent and a Russian medical worker, said they saw two bodies at the site of a clash between civilians and soldiers in mechanized vehicles about two blocks from the Russian government building.

Various unconfirmed local news reports said as many as five people were killed and 10 wounded by Soviet troops ordered to put down the resistance to Monday's overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev. Ambulances converged on the Russian government building.

Tens of thousands of civilians, singing folk songs and chanting, rallied all day Tuesday at the building, where Yeltsin, the president of Russia and leader of the resistance, had been holed up since Monday.

The Kremlin ordered an 11 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew in the capital an effort to disperse the throng, but many Muscovites ignored a steady rain and stayed put.

About an hour after the curfew began, several bursts of automatic weapons fire were heard in the area and, after a half-hour lull, there was more sporadic shooting, but the circumstances could not be determined.

After the gunfire, the crowd chanted loudly, ''Shame! Shame! ... No tanks! No tanks! ... Freedom! Freedom! ... Yeltsin! Yeltsin!''

All the approaches to the parliament were barricaded by buses with deflated tires, park benches and even diplomat's cars taken from streets near the U.S. Embassy a block from the Russian parliament building. Protesters formed human chains and kept vigil by bonfires.

At one approach to the parliament building, a chain of young women held hands across the street and held a sign reading: ''Soldiers Don't Shoot at Mothers.''

Former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who quit in December warning of an impending dictatorship and has emerged as a hero of the resistance, was greeted with huge cheers and the crowd surged around him when he arrived at the parliament after the shooting.

The only confirmed deaths came in a confrontation between demonsrators with Molotov cocktails trying to stop several armored personnel carriers at a underpass on the Moscow Ring Road about two blocks from the Russian government headquarters and a block from the U. S. Embassy.

Half a dozen witnesses said they saw two bodies at the scene, one headless. Others said another victim appeared to be seriously wounded. The worst injuries apparently came from crushing under the wheels and treads of the military vehicles.

''One person climbed on top of the tank and fell under the tread,'' one woman said. Blood could be seen on the pavement near the underpass, where several of the armored infantry fighting vehicles were stuck after the incident.

The independent radio station Echo Moscow said at least three people were killed and 10 wounded, including a foreign reporter. That report -- the last before the station was abruptly cut off -- could not be confirmed. Interfax said up to five people might have been killed in Moscow, but gave few details.

The Latvian mission in Moscow said Soviet soldiers entered the government building in the republic's capital Riga Tuesday night, disarmed Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis's bodyguards and apparently seized the building.

There was no further word on the fate of the prime minister. The statement from the mission said telephone communication with Latvia had been cut off.

Interfax also said columns of tanks and troops moved on the city government building in Leningrad and that Mayor Anatoly Sobchak had called on residents to protect their local officials. That report also could not be confirmed.

Government-controlled television said Tuesday night that Prime Minister Pavlov was very ill with high blood pressure and ''at present it is necessary to observe strict confinement to bed.'' It said First Deputy Premier Vitaly Doguzhiev would take over his duties ''for the period of Pavlov's illness.''

Interfax, one of several privately run news agencies that came into being and flourished under Gorbachev, reported that two other members of the eight-man State of Emergency Committee, KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov also had resigned.

The reported erosion of the committee's ranks was not confirmed by the government.

Late Tuesday afternoon the Russian government said troops loyal to Yeltsin had intercepted military radio broadcasts saying troops under orders of the coup leaders planned to take over the building to crush the opposition.

Russian Premier Ivan Silaev, other members of the government and dozens of pro-democracy parliament deputies left the building in the early evening, but Yeltsin, Russian Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi and other officials stayed inside. That move was designed to allow a Russian government to function even if the building was taken over and Yeltsin were neutralized.

Gennady Yanayev, the former vice president who became acting president and leads the State of Emergency Committee, denied any knowledge of plans to take over the Yeltsin headquarters and said he would countermand the order if he found one had been given.

Women and children were asked to leave the area of the parliament building, which has been surrounded by pro-democracy Soviets since shortly after Gorbachev was overthrown.

Gas masks, bulletproof vests and helmets were given to volunteer brigades defending the building, and crates of gasoline bombs were seen being carried into the parliament and stored in a makeshift ''war room'' on the third floor.

The tens of thousands of people who have maintained a vigil around the Russian government building to protect Yeltsin and other pro- democracy leaders cheered as Pavlov's illness and Yazov's reported resignation were announced.

Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens defied a ban on rallies and demonstrated in Moscow, Leningrad and other cities Tuesday to protest the coup and demand in Kremlin's new rulers produce Gorbachev. Coal miners and other workers said they were supporting Yeltsin's call for a general strike.

Gorbachev was reported by independent Soviet news agencies to have been brought back to Moscow, but Yeltsin told British Prime Minister John Major he believed he was still being held in the Crimea, where he had been vacationing.

The hard-line Communists who overthrew Gorbachev kept tanks and armored personnel carriers posted in the center of the capital and blocked squares outside the Kremlin with troops, but allowed midday demonstrations to proceed.

Some military units had earlier declared their opposition to the coup leaders and were posted outside the parliament with their tanks and armored personnel carriers helping to protect Yeltsin, the popularly elected president of the Russian republic and the focus of the Soviet resistance.

The rally at the Russian parliament building drew about 100,000 people who heard Yeltsin and former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze speak of fears of a civil war and demand that the coup leaders be brought to trial.

''We have to take precautions because the junta that has come to power will not stop at anything in order to retain their power,'' Yeltsin told the crowd from a balcony, but he vowed, ''The conservative forces will be stopped.''

Another large demonstration opposing the takeover of Gorbachev's government brought between 50,000 and 100,000 people to Leningrad's Palace Square. There was no sign of increased military presence in the Soviet Union's second largest city, apparently under an agreement between reformist Mayor Anatoly Sobchak and the city's military commandant.

There also were demonstrations in the Moldavian capital of Kishinev and other Soviet cities supporting Yeltsin's demands that he be allowed to meet with Gorbachev and that foreign doctors be allowed to examine the ousted president.

Yeltsin demanded that Gorbachev be permitted to meet with several political leaders independent of the hard-line clique that took over the government and that he be allowed to address the Soviet people.

Yeltsin also demanded that Gorbachev be examined by doctors from the World Health Organization and that their findings be made public. If Gorbachev is healthy, Yeltsin said, he should be permitted to resume his office.

Copyright 2007 by United Press International.