A VIOLENT assault by Soviet special forces on the headquarters of the Latvian Interior Ministry in Riga late Sunday night provides dramatic evidence that the Baltic crisis is far from over. According to reports from Latvia, at least four people were killed and 10 injured when a unit of ``black berets,'' as the special Soviet Interior Ministry troops are called, made an attempt to seize the Latvian government building just after 9 p.m. local time. In a 90-minute gun battle in the center of the city, the troops seized several floors of the building, despite resistance from a small number of Latvian police inside. They withdrew after five hours of negotiations between Latvian Premier Ivar Godmanis and Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo in Moscow.
The reported victims of the attack included a Latvian television journalist and two Latvian policemen killed, and a Finnish television journalist and Soviet TV cameraman injured.
Although the precise circumstances of the attack are disputed, there is little question that the events in Latvia are following the pattern of Moscow- and Communist Party-inspired confrontation that led to the tragic bloodshed in Lithuania only a week before.
As in Lithuania, a Communist-controlled ``Salvation Committee'' has claimed to seize power, ousting a democratically elected nationalist government. And Soviet military forces have been deployed in a manner calculated to raise tensions and to justify the claims coming from Moscow that ``chaos'' in the Baltic republic requires the imposition of direct presidential rule.
The escalation of tension in Latvia came only hours after Russian democratic activists organized a massive demonstration in central Moscow, numbering at least 100,000, to protest the ``danger of dictatorship'' and express solidarity with the Baltic republics. The demonstration backed Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, who has emerged as the champion of all the republican governments against the dictates of the Kremlin.
In a tough speech yesterday to the Russian parliament, which opened a week early because of the Baltic crisis, the popular Russian leader accused the government of President Mikhail Gorbachev of ``toppling constitutional bodies'' in the Baltics.
Stressing the ``critical'' nature of the crisis, Mr. Yeltsin pointed to the right-wing turn of the Gorbachev government in recent weeks. Indeed, many of Gorbachev's best known liberal advisers, including former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Alexander Yakovlev, and economists Stanislav Shatalin and Nikolai Petrakov, have left the government. But, Yeltsin argued, ``the reactionary turn has not yet reached a stage of no return.''
Yeltsin's strategy of combating the right-wing shift is centered on forming an alliance of republican governments, with the Ukraine, Russia, Byelorussia, and Kazakhstan at its core.
The special Interior Ministry forces, called the OMON, have been the spearhead of Kremlin pressure on the nationalist Latvian government, starting on Jan. 2, when they seized the central publishing house. The OMON regiment is directly responsible to Interior Minister Pugo, a former head of the Latvian Communist Party and of the Latvian KGB (secret police).
As tensions rose in Lithuania, the Latvian government, elected by an overwhelming majority last spring, took steps to defend itself, including building barricades around the parliament and other key facilities.
On Saturday, the ``All-Latvian Public Salvation Committee,'' a group whose only known backing comes from the Communist Party, issued a statement claiming the government had brought Latvia to the ``brink of a national catastrophe'' and was seeking to establish a ``bourgeois dictatorship.''
The ``committee,'' claiming to act on behalf of ``the working people,'' proclaimed that it was seizing ``the whole of state power,'' dissolving the parliament and the government.
At the same time, the OMON forces were issuing their own dire warnings, claiming that they were threatened by the police forces loyal to the Latvian government. In an article published Saturday in the Soviet Communist Party daily Pravda, the OMON regiment commander Cheslav Mlynnik is quoted as saying, ``We are ready to resist the attack if it happens.'' The article cites undocumented threats to OMON family members. ``We warn,'' the OMON commander said, ``if only one hair drops from the head of our relatives, we will answer.''
These developments now seem to have been part of the preparation for the assault that took place on Sunday night. The account being circulated by pro-Moscow sources, including the Tass news agency, claims that the troops were responding to the kidnap and rape of an officer's wife, followed by threats to harm others unless Latvian nationalists detained during the seizure of the printing house were released. When the special forces came to ``negotiate'' with the Latvian Interior Ministry, the account continues, they were fired on without warning. ``The detail was forced to return fire and capture the republican Interior Ministry,'' Tass said.
But Western journalists present in Riga dispute this version. According to a report from the British Broadcasting Corporation, two busloads and two carloads of troops arrived and opened fire without provocation.
The Latvian parliament, meeting in emergency session, decided to form special militia units to defend the government following the attack.