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A polite crowd of 2,000 people greeted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev yesterday at Lenin Square in the Lithuanian capital, the first stop on his three-day visit to the Baltic republic. Mr. Gorbachev is here to address last month's decision by the Lithuanian Communist Party to break away from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In remarks to the crowd Gorbachev stressed the need to respect the rights of ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union.

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``We have been tied together for the last 50 years whether we like it or not,'' he said, referring to the incorporation of the three Baltic republics into the Soviet Union in 1940.

``Moreover, we all have not lived in a federation - we have lived in a unitary state, with its own realities. If even the slightest suppression occurs, or misunderstanding - say, in Estonia or Moldavia - it spills over into the rest of the country.''

During his visit, Gorbachev will meet with members of both the independent Lithuanian Communist Party and the minority faction that remains loyal to Moscow, as well as with workers, intellectuals, and the military.

On Wednesday 30,000 people demonstrated here for a free Lithuania, and yesterday evening several hundred thousand people were expected to gather here from all over the republic to show Gorbachev their resolve to reestablish Lithuania's independence as a nation.

To Gorbachev one issue is already clear: The Lithuanian Communist Party will not back down on its decision to break away from Moscow. So for the Soviet leader, the challenge now is to keep Lithuania from declaring independence altogether.

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