Lithuania Attack May Be Costly To Gorbachev

MOSCOW - The seizure of Lithuania's central telephone office by Soviet black berets could hurt Mikhail Gorbachev's image in the West and disrupt his campaign for economic assistance, diplomats say.

Heavily armed Interior Ministry commandos occupied the building in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, and cut the republic's communications for two hours yesterday before withdrawing peacefully. No injuries were reported.

Lithuanian Vice President Ceslovas Stankevicius charged that the attack by the black berets was "a rehearsal for the possible overthrow of the legitimately elected government" of the Baltic republic of 3.7 million people.

The takeover appeared likely to tarnish Gorbachev's international image three weeks before he meets in London with leaders of the world's seven leading industrialized nations to seek aid for his economic reforms.

"You can argue that Gorbachev did not order the attacks," said a Western diplomat in Moscow, referring to recent violence in the Baltics. "But then you have to ask, `If he is the president, why can't he stop it?"'

The takeover of the telephone office "will not advance his case" at the July 15-17 Group of Seven summit, said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Nikolai Panchenko, a duty officer at the Interior Ministry in Moscow, said the black berets seized the building because they suspected pro-independence forces were storing weapons there.

He said the troops confiscated rifles, pistols and explosives, but did not make any arrests.

Lithuanian officials accused the black berets of planting the weapons in a "provocation" aimed at pressuring the republic to abandon its drive for independence.

Soviet troops have occupied several important buildings in Vilnius since the Baltic republic declared independence on March 11, 1990. The bloodiest attack came Jan. 13, when Soviet army troops and tanks stormed the Vilnius television broadcasting complex. Thirteen civilians and a KGB officer died.

Soviet troops also have taken over printing plants and customs checkpoints. Gorbachev and other top officials have denied ordering the seizures, but have not condemned them. Lithuanian officials have vigorously protested.