FRAGILE hopes for a peaceful end to Russia's political crisis ended yesterday as opponents of President Boris Yeltsin smashed through police lines to break the blockade around the Russian White House, where hard-line members of parliament have been holding out for almost two weeks.
About 10,000 demonstrators had gathered at Moscow's October Square, marching down a main boulevard, breaking line after line of riot police in the process. As the demonstrators reached the White House, they overwhelmed the riot forces, pouring over barriers of police water-cannon trucks and barbed wire. Police fired automatic weapons into the air in an attempt to stop the demonstrators. But many police fled in panic.
Several people are believed to have died in the attack and scores were injured. A stream of ambulances were taking wounded from parliament. President Yeltsin declared a state of emergency.
After a rousing speech by ``acting President'' Alexander Rutskoi, demonstrators stormed the mayor's office. Nationalist volunteers fired automatic weapons on the building, driving pro-Yeltsin police through the glass windows, fleeing in panic. Some police were caught in the building and were placed under guard. A policeman named Alexander said, ``I never wanted to be here anyway,'' shaking violently. (Parliament defenders, Page 3.)
The crowd then ascended stairs, shouting, ``Kill the mayor.'' Several pro-Yeltsin officials were captured and received periodic blows as they were being led out of the building through a gauntlet of angry demonstrators. Many demonstrators had police clubs and shields seized in earlier street battles.
Police forces were regrouping about a mile from the parliament as some mob leaders said their next target would be the Ostankino television complex. Trucks, city buses, and even armored personel carriers full of anti-Yeltsin demonstrators waving red flags were making their way to seize the TV center. Control of television is crucial, giving the anti-Yeltsin forces opinion-making control throughout the nation.
Parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov and Mr. Rutskoi, who have led the resistance to Yeltsin's Sept. 21 decree dissolving the parliament, also called on demonstrators to march toward the Kremlin.
The United States Embassy compound is also located across the street from the White House. According to reports, US marines were deployed on full alert to protect the building following the attack.
At press time, the situation around the White House had dissolved into chaos. The Yeltsin government was faced with either losing complete control of the situation around the parliament or responding with a heavy use of force, one sure to result in a tremendous loss of lives.
THE threat of eruption of violence has been in the air for days. Last Tuesday the Yeltsin government moved to seal the parliament building off with a massive deployment of Interior Ministry riot control troops, backed by small numbers of army units. They had hoped to lure most of the parliament deputies out of the building and to isolate a core of hard-liners, backed by extremist political groups.
The White House defenders had failed to yield, however, and there was increasing evidence that the situation inside the building was under the control of extremists, including Afghan war veterans and Russian nationalists who have fought in ethnic conflicts in former Soviet republics. Reporters who mananged to get into the building in recent days saw large numbers of armed men, particularly at night.
Last Thursday, in response to the growing potential for conflict, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, intervened to try to mediate a mutual withdrawal of the armed forces and a disarmament of the situation. Talks began on Friday and continued yesterday but made little progress. The eruption of violence yesterday appears to doom that effort.
Aside from the fighting around the White House, most of Moscow remained calm. Muscovites were going about their business yesterday afternoon. Indeed, even after the initial events, the Russian state broadcasting media had still not informed the public about what was going on.
The government must now contend with not only the White House hard-liners but the reaction from powerful political forces outside the capital - governments of the 88 regions and republics. The government's concerns have been largely focused on the regions in recent days, attempting to head off opposition to Yeltsin's decision to disband the parliament. A meeting of the heads of the regions' administrations and soviets (councils) was scheduled to take place on Oct. 9.
Equally important will be the response of Russia's armed forces and security police. So far, they have remained loyal to Yeltsin, while insisting that they did not want to become involved in partisan political struggles. But many observers believe that the Army's backing for the president was premised on events remaining peaceful. No one is sure what the response will be if the president calls upon the Army to enforce order in Moscow.
``I am very afraid that if the Army begins to move, it will be impossible to stop there,'' says analyst Sergei Blagovolin. ``They will feel the taste of power.''
The Russian Orthodox Church had issued a statement on Saturday after a meeting of its Holy Synod appealing for a way out of the political crisis without violence. ``There should be no bloodshed under any situation,'' church leaders said. ``Otherwise any hope for peace will be lost, as bloodshed will immediately erect an insuperable wall between the people involved in the conflict.'' In Moscow's strife-torn streets, it was evident yesterday that warning had fallen on deaf ears.