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Lies About Assault on Rebels Shatter Kremlin's Credibility

RARELY has the "fog of war" that cloaks any battle with confusion been so assiduously cultivated as it was last week by the Kremlin.

Officials from Russian President Boris Yeltsin on down wove a tissue of lies to justify the Army's fierce assault on Pervomaiskoye, in which Russian troops poured withering fire for four days on the tiny village where Chechen rebels had been trapped with more than 100 hostages, while their comrades set attack dogs on journalists to keep them away from the action.

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The way officials contradicted and denied each other's reports left the government's credibility in tatters.

Russian spokesmen "have absolutely no shame," charged Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a press freedom watchdog. "A person today says the direct opposite of what he or she said yesterday.... This shows the absolute immorality of those who are talking to us in that way," he fumed.

"What happened in Pervomaiskoye shows that [the authorities] have learned all their lessons," added Valery Yakov, a correspondent for the leading liberal daily Izvestia. He spent three days with Russian front-line troops. "They have learned how to fight against journalists and truthful information," he complained.

Ordinary Russians who believe what their leaders tell them on TV can be forgiven for taking away a skewed impression of how the tragedy in Pervomaiskoye unfolded.

When it was all over, President Yeltsin explained that the military assault had taken longer than the one day he had predicted because the village "concealed a large Dudayevite stronghold underground," referring to Chechnya's rebel leader, Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, who has led the region's four-year bid for independence from Russia. "It was built a long time ago, and it was maintained," Yeltsin added.

This was pure invention: Nobody has seen such a stronghold, and Pervomaiskoye residents had told reporters that none of their homes even had proper cellars because the water table is too high. But none of the Russian TV reporters challenged the president's untruth.

The man in charge of the Russian assault, Gen. Mikhail Barsukov, head of the Federal Security Bureau (the FSB, formerly the KGB), claimed on Saturday that "it became clear ... that the seizure of Pervomaiskoye as a possible action was envisaged by the terrorists in advance."

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But a few minutes later at the same press conference, General Barsukov's colleague, Interior Minister Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, contradicted that account, saying that an Army helicopter fired on the convoy of buses carrying the gunmen and their hostages toward Chechnya in order to stop it outside Pervomaiskoye because "the danger arose that the band would cross the border [into Chechnya] and escape responsibility."

The safety of the hostages, believed to number more than 100, appeared not to be the authorities' top priority, although the government said that concern for their lives prompted the military assault on the village a week ago.

Deputy head of the Interior Ministry's press department Leonid Golovnyov announced early last week that the rebels had begun shooting hostages and that two hostage militiamen had been hung outside the village for all to see.

That report was categorically denied only 24 hours later by Gen. Alexander Mikhailov, chief spokesman for the FSB until he was sacked on Friday.

Not that General Mikhailov was a paragon of truthfulness himself: The next day he announced that while 41 hostages had escaped, "practically" all the rest were dead. He implied that they had been executed by their Chechen captors, which left the Russians free to level Pervomaiskoye with rocket fire without fear of harming civilians.

Less than a day later, Yeltsin announced that 82 hostages had been freed. He did not explain how the newly discovered 41 had risen from the graves to which Mikhailov had consigned them earlier. And intelligence chief Barsukov conceded that while 153 rebel corpses had been found, troops combing the village had located no dead hostages.

The Russian authorities' failure to get their story straight was most graphically illustrated at a joint press conference given Saturday by Generals Barsukov and Kulikov, who stood side by side as they contradicted each other, giving differing figures for the number of Chechen gunmen involved, the number killed, the number who escaped, the number of hostages, and the number of them who got away.

Neither the FSB nor the Interior Ministry has drawn up a list of hostages taken from the hospital in Kizlyar, where the Chechen commandos began their raid. Nobody knows exactly how many there were, nor is there any independent confirmation that 82 of them escaped from Pervomaiskoye.

Beyond the beating the government's credibility took over last week's events, Izvestia's chief editor, Igor Golembyovsky, sees a broader threat. He says Yeltsin may not have been deliberately lying when he talked of a well-prepared Chechen stronghold in Pervomaiskoye. Instead, he may have been misled by aides. "This is the biggest danger," Mr. Golembyovsky warns. "I am increasingly convinced that the head of state is basing his administration and his understanding of problems on misinformation. This is fearsome."

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