Explosion at tank base latest blow to Russian army


Russia: A massive explosion and fire raged through the base of an elite Russian tank division outside Moscow yesterday in the latest blow to the country's crumbling army.

One soldier died and 10 T80 tanks were destroyed when flames set off tank ammunition in a fire that raged all day at the Kantemirov division barracks.

Units from this division were mobilised by former president Mr Boris Yeltsin to fire on communist rebels who had occupied the government's White House complex in 1993.

But this was no terrorist attack, merely the latest accident attributed to the carelessness and malaise sweeping through Russia's demoralised armed forces.

Adding to the humiliation, the division had to phone the local civilian fire brigade to put out the flames and smoke which billowed over the base throughout the day.

The fire is the latest in a chain of accidents which has included a fire that cut communications with Russia's military satellites and the Kursk submarine disaster of three years ago.

These accidents come on top of the continuing blood-letting in Chechnya, where on Sunday a Chechen female suicide bomber blew herself up after being refused entry to a southern military base.

Further humiliation came on Friday when a notorious war crimes trial ended with a decorated tank colonel, Yury Budanov, being jailed for 10 years for kidnapping and murdering a 13-year-old Chechen girl.

In a case which shocked Russia, Budanov admitted getting drunk, then picking the girl off the street in March 2000, taking her to his headquarters and beating her to death.

More prosecutions could follow as human rights groups have documented thousands of cases of alleged abuses by Russian forces in Chechnya.

They allege troops - especially the so-called Contracti, men paid extra to stay on in service - kidnap Chechen civilians and sell them back to their relatives.

All this is despite President Vladimir Putin making defence reform one of his key priorities.

Two years ago, his friend and former KGB officer, Mr Sergei Ivanov, was appointed Defence Minister with the mission to cut Russia's bloated 1.3 million-strong armed forces.

He has failed, however, as resistance from generals and a lack of cash has hobbled reforms and left plans for a fully professional army in tatters.

The result is that tens of thousands of unwanted officers remain on the payroll and most servicemen are poorly trained. Desertions are reaching epidemic proportions.

Russia's navy has few ships with fuel to sail. The air force has had almost no new planes for a decade. And the few elite units left in the army are taking disproportionately high casualties in Chechnya.

Meanwhile, the generals keep making trouble for themselves. Earlier this month they demanded that women signing on in professional units be banned from having babies, causing a furore among women's groups.