Lithuanians Confront Soviet Troops
Citizens gather at parliament building to defend independence after Soviet Army crackdown
SOVIET troops killed at least 13 people and wounded at least 100 others in an early morning raid here yesterday, in which they seized the television facilities in this Baltic capital. At about 1 a.m., a squadron of troops and tanks sealed off the television tower. Thousands of pro-independence Lithuanian supporters confronted the tanks as they approached the tower. They surrounded some of the tanks so that they could not move.
Many Lithuanians showed incredible courage, banging on the sides of the tanks, even though they were unarmed. Some youths even climbed up on to tanks.
The protests did not stop the troops from occupying both the television tower and the studios a few miles away. At least two of the dead were crushed by tanks. The tanks fired blank shots that reverberated across town and soldiers fired at demonstrators with automatic weapons. The Lithuanians offered no armed resistance.
The news of the takeover sent panic through the population, which quickly mobilized to defend the parliament building. Volunteers scavenged nearby construction sites and men, women, and children carried concrete slabs, metal rods, and other debris to erect barricades that were intended to block the approach of tanks on parliament.
Tens of thousands of Lithuanians, gathered around and inside the parliament building, are preparing to fight to the death to defend their freedom. Inside the building, about 500 volunteers of the newly formed Lithuanian defense force were grim but determined to resist.
``This is the zero hour,'' said Pavolas Romanas, a member of the force. ``The people have seen that the communists will stop only when they have squashed the independence movement. I am prepared to fight to the end.''
According to reports reaching here at press time, the armed forces had called for the building to be cleared by late yesterday afternoon. Many defenders, even parliamentary members, only had clubs. But some were armed with automatic weapons, shotguns, and hunting rifles. Fire hoses were strewn about the foyer and all volunteers had been issued gas masks.
Martial law was declared early yesterday, with officials claiming they were acting on behalf of a ``Committee for National Salvation,'' which will take power in Lithuania. The shadowy committee appears to represent only the tiny pro-Soviet Communist Party of Lithuania.
In a press conference on Saturday, party Central Committee spokesman Jusas Yermalavicus claimed that ``since the 11th of March [when Lithuania declared its independence from Moscow], there has not been any order. Today democratic forces in Lithuania must act.''
The spokesman did not give any details on the Committee for National Salvation or name any of its members, citing security precautions. He merely said that the committee had the support of at least 20 ``work collectives'' or factories in Lithuania.
``Because the Communist Party has the support of workers, it can count on success,'' he said. ``The process of transfer of power to the committee has began.''
The Communist official went on to accuse Lithuanian President Vytautus Landsbergis of ``moral terrorism'' and of not looking after the interests of Lithuanians. On Saturday, he denied that military action was part of the transfer of power.
Military officials also denied having any connection with the Committee of National Salvation.
``This is all I know about the committee and I heard that on the radio and TV,'' said Maj. Gen. Algis Vysotskys, political commissar of the Vilnius garrison. He said that the Soviet Army would maintain order. ``Every government loves law and order. When Mr. Landsbergis speaks to the Lithuanian people, he electrifies the situation and urges them to break the law. We consider this in itself unlawful. The Lithuanian people aren't Landsbergis's.''
Garrison commander Maj. Gen. Vladimir Uskopchik said that the troops would obey orders only from Moscow. ``We live on the territory of the USSR and the legal authority thus is the president of the USSR.'' He said at a news conference Saturday that the Army was not planning any attacks on parliament, ``but I think if the matter goes further, the possibility of an attack may emerge.''
After news of the takeover, the Lithuanian parliament convened at 3 a.m. in an emergency session and authorized Foreign Minister Algirdas Saudargas, who is visiting Poland, to form a government-in-exile and also to appoint a new prime minister.
The parliament building is the last major facility still controlled by the democratically elected Lithuanian government. ``There are no buildings left to take,'' Donatus Ziburis said. ``If they take this building, then there will be partisan warfare.''
The last hope to avert massive bloodshed lay with the arrival at midday yesterday of a fact-finding commission of leaders from Soviet republics, dispatched following a meeting of the Federation Council in Moscow Saturday. The commision was appointed by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as a result of opposition to military action from many of the republican leaders. Commission members arrived at the city's otherwise closed airport, drove in a motorcade to the capital, and were allowed through the crowd to the parliament building. Lithuanians shouted ``Lithuania'' and ``Freedom'' as they passed through.
Outside the parliament building a crowd numbering about 50,000 gathered, in a driving rain that turned to heavy snow, to form a human line of defense against possible attack.
``I was born in a free Lithuania and will do anything to keep it free,'' says Josas Vasaitis, a pensioner. Lithuania was occupied by Soviet Union in 1940 following a secret pact with Nazi Germany.
``I am prepared to lay down in front of the tanks if that's what it takes,'' Mr. Vasaitis said. ``I am not afraid. I know what must be done. Lithuania will succeed. [Indian independence leader Mohandas] Gandhi fought the English using peaceful methods. The same will happen here.''