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By Natalia Yefimova

Lebed, 52, Killed in Helicopter Crash

The Moscow Times, April 29, 2002

Police, Kremlin security officers and plainclothes officers forcefully broke up a peaceful Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed -- the gruff general who came in third in the 1996 presidential elections and signed the peace accord that ended the 1994-96 war in Chechnya -- died Sunday morning after a helicopter crash in the south of his vast Siberian region.

As of Sunday evening, eight more people, including four journalists and Lebed's deputy Nadezhda Kolba, were reported dead. Eleven were badly injured. According to preliminary reports from the crash site, the Mi-8 helicopter with 20 passengers and crew members got tangled in power lines due to fog and poor visibility, Maxim Gurevich, spokesman for the regional administration, said by telephone from Krasnoyarsk.

Lebed, who turned 52 earlier this month, was traveling with a delegation of regional officials and journalists to the opening ceremony of a new downhill ski slope in the region's Yermakovskoye district, built as part of a Krasnoyarsk program to promote tourism.

RTR television showed footage of the crumpled helicopter and a dozen emergency workers sifting through the sun-drenched, snow-covered crash site. The accident took place at 6:15 a.m. Moscow time some 110 kilometers southeast of Yermakovskoye, the town from which the helicopter had taken off about 1 1/2 hours earlier.

Gurevich said 19 of the crash victims were delivered to the local hospital. Six were already dead when they reached the hospital, and two others died later. Lebed was flown to Abakan, the capital of the neighboring republic of Khakassia, where his brother Alexei is governor. It was not immediately clear whether Lebed died at the hospital or en route.

President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov joined Patriarch Alexy II and a slew of lawmakers in expressing shock and sending their condolences. Putin sent telegrams to Lebed's family and the regional administration, saying, "Alexander Ivanovich will forever remain in our memory as an outstanding, strong and courageous man -- a true soldier, who devoted his life to serving his homeland." The president also ordered the formation of a special government commission to investigate the cause of the crash.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is heading the commission, reiterated in televised remarks the preliminary version attributing the crash to bad weather conditions and a resulting run-in with power lines. Shoigu was to fly to the crash site Sunday evening.

Lebed's brother Alexei called the accident an "absurd chance occurrence" and said on Ekho Moskvy radio that he did not want to "artificially heighten tensions" with speculations of foul play.

However, the late governor's forthright manner and tough-guy tactics had earned him many enemies in the region and beyond, prompting a number of politicians and experts to speak of possible sabotage.

Former Kursk Governor Alexander Rutskoi, also a retired general, called for a thorough investigation, while State Duma Deputy Alexei Arbatov said that if the crash had not been caused by poor visibility or technical malfunction, suspicions of "malicious intent" inevitably came to mind.

"Lebed had long been at the epicenter of a battle between various groups and interests in Krasnoyarsk, among them economic, administrative, criminal and political," Arbatov told ORT television. "And if the cause of the accident was something other [than the current version], one can suspect malicious intent was behind it."

In remarks reported by NTVRU.com, Arbatov also said that Lebed's death could very well destabilize the Krasnoyarsk region, which was hit with grave financial hardships this year and has been in the grip of political turmoil throughout the governor's term, which began in 1998.

The acting governor for the time being will be Lebed's first deputy, Nikolai Ashlapov, who spoke Sunday at a joint press conference with Krasnoyarsk legislative assembly Speaker Alexander Uss. According to Gurevich, the two officials said that "all the region's services, its economy and all its vital facilities are in working order, and ther e is no panic or paralysis."

It was not clear Sunday where Lebed would be buried. Alexei Lebed said he had spoken by telephone with Putin and voiced the family's wish that the governor be buried at the Novodevichye cemetery in Moscow. Interfax cited sources close to Alexander Lebed as saying that he could be buried in his native city of Novocherkassk in the southern Rostov region.

Gurevich said the site of the burial was the prerogative of Lebed's family and the regional administration was not participating in making the arrangements.

The general's body was to be delivered late Sunday to the city of Krasnoyarsk, where a memorial ceremony and wake was scheduled for Tuesday. Monday and Tuesday have been declared days of mourning in Krasnoyarsk and Khakassia.

See also:

Russia probes Lebed death crash. CNN Europe. Appril 29, 2002

the original at

The Moscow Times, April 29, 2002

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