Death of Lebed in crash may have been sabotage

 

RUSSIA: Alexander Lebed, a tough-talking general who played a key role in foiling the 1991 coup against Mr Mikhail Gorbachev and ran for president against Mr Boris Yeltsin five years later, died yesterday in a helicopter crash.

Gen Lebed's last job was governor of the huge Siberian Krasnoyarsk region, where the 52-year-old Afghan war veteran had ruffled many feathers - prompting suggestions his death might not have been an accident.

"There was some fog," Mr Alexander Lychkovsky, head of Gen Lebed's regional security council, said on television. "The helicopter hit a high-voltage line and crashed," an emergencies ministry officer said. He said there were 19 people on board. Seven, including Gen Lebed, died while the rest were in hospital.

The helicopter was carrying Krasnoyarsk administration officials and local journalists to the inauguration ceremony of a new ski area in the south of the territory. A spokesman said President Vladimir Putin had ordered senior officials to investigate the crash.

Earlier, a senior parliamentary deputy, Mr Alexei Arbatov, said he would not dismiss sabotage as the cause, saying Gen Lebed had made powerful enemies during his stint as governor of the mineral-rich area.

A pugnacious paratroop commander with a gravel voice and blunt style, Gen Lebed shot to prominence in 1991 when his troops helped Mr Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic, that was then part of the Soviet Union, foil a KGB-backed coup against Mr Gorbachev.

After the demise of the Soviet Union, Gen Lebed, a Cossack, grabbed the headlines as he led Russia's 14th army in ending a bloody conflict in Moldova.

Quitting the armed forces in 1995, he entered parliament and ran against Mr Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential election, promising to end corruption in the post-Soviet economy. He finished third, threw his support behind Mr Yeltsin to defeat the communist challenger, Mr Gennady Zyuganov, and took on a senior role in the Kremlin security council.

From his new Kremlin position Gen Lebed negotiated a peace deal with Chechen rebels, which led to Moscow's withdrawal from the separatist territory. Mr Putin, who sent troops back into Chechnya in 1999, later called the agreement a betrayal of Russia.