From the archives: Ceausescu Arrest Told; Battles Rage

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

LONDON -- The fiercest battles yet in a week of bloodletting rocked the Romanian capital of Bucharest on Saturday amid reports that deposed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is under arrest by the army. There was convincing evidence that the death toll nationwide rivals the loss of life in Hungary's ill-fated 1956 uprising.

Well-armed Ceausescu loyalists and army troops supporting the popular uprising against his tyrannical rule clashed into the night Saturday. The center of Bucharest was said to be under army control, even though troops still had not been able to dislodge the last pro-Ceausescu snipers, some of whom seemed determined to fight to the death. A new counterattack was considered possible.

"The vipers' screams will soon cease!" Radio Bucharest promised late Saturday. The radio and state-run television both have remained in the hands of anti-Ceausescu forces since early Friday afternoon despite persistent efforts by Ceausescu loyalists to oust them.

Estimates of total deaths during three days of fighting in the Romanian capital ranged to 1,000 or more. Television film showed dozens of bodies piled in hospital corridors.

In the western city of Timisoara, where the current uprising began with a massacre of protesting civilians last weekend, Western reporters were told early Saturday that the official body count had already reached 4,082. Searchers were still digging up mass graves, and the count is expected to top 12,000.

Combined with unknown numbers of dead in other cities where heavy fighting has been reported, including Arad, Cluj, Siliu and Brasov, the final toll--if it is ever known--seems sure to rival or surpass the 1956 Hungarian revolt. The official death toll in that revolution was 6,000, although unofficial estimates of fatalities ranged up to 30,000.

There were signs that the high-water mark of the fighting may have been reached, and an emergency Warsaw Pact foreign ministers' meeting on the Romanian situation, originally expected to be convened today, reportedly was put off pending further developments.

In Moscow, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev affirmed the Soviet Union's support for the Romanian uprising, pledging Saturday to provide "immediate and effective humanitarian aid" to the country. But he told the Congress of People's Deputies that the Kremlin had turned down a request by Romania's provisional, pro-democracy government that was formed Friday for military assistance.

In Bucharest, Ion Iliescu, a member of the so-called Front of National Salvation, as the provisional government is known, announced Ceausescu's detention on national television but gave no details of his capture.

It was assumed that the reported capture of Ceausescu, whom the provisional government vowed to put on trial, would discourage some of the die-hards still holding out.

The state broadcast media had previously given conflicting reports on Ceausescu's fate, reporting at various times that he had been captured, escaped, been captured again, and fled the country.

"Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, are under arrest and being held by the army," Iliescu told viewers. "His son, Nicu, and Ilie Ceausescu (Nicolae's brother and a former deputy minister of defense) are also being held."

State television showed a bruised Nicu Ceausescu in custody Friday, but by late Saturday had offered no such proof of his father's capture and no clue as to where the deposed dictator might be held.

Throughout the day Saturday, fighting raged in Bucharest. Foreign and Romanian television, monitored in the West, showed dramatic film of anti-Ceausescu forces pinned down by pro-Ceausescu snipers, and of tanks and army and civilian riflemen returning fire toward nearby buildings where their attackers were believed entrenched.

Unarmed civilians ran through the field of fire to bring food to the television station's defenders. Before dawn Saturday, young people armed only with homemade bombs fought beside soldiers against a furious onslaught by members of the dreaded Securitate security forces and a little-known, elite commando unit called "the Third Force" that is said to be answerable only to Ceausescu.

Fighting raged almost continuously all day in several parts of the city, and television footage showed bullets tearing into buildings whose facades were already badly pockmarked and whose windows were blown away.

Clashes were reported in several other Romanian towns as well, including Timisoara, where an estimated 100 elite Securitate troops reportedly parachuted into the area from helicopters late Saturday in order to reinforce comrades still holding out against the army.

The television station was doubling Saturday as a detention and interrogation center for other Ceausescu loyalists rounded up by the army, and it remained the focus of some of the city's fiercest battles.

At one point Saturday, state television urged people living in areas of heavy fighting to leave their homes so the army could better flush out pro-Ceausescu security agents.

"Please evacuate these areas in order to let the army move in," a spokesman pleaded. "Go to your relatives and friends in other parts of the city."

Battles also focused Saturday on Bucharest's main airport, where a contingent of Red Cross workers who managed to bring in two small planeloads of supplies reported that they had counted 40 bodies and treated 300 wounded. The capital was closed to commercial flights.

"We're talking of something which is on a scale which, were it to happen in London, would overwhelm the casualty abilities of all our hospitals," David Wyatt of the British Red Cross said. "And, of course, Bucharest is not London."

An international aid effort for Romania was gaining momentum Saturday, although the continued fighting in Bucharest and the uncertainties of highway travel into the country from Hungary were holding up delivery of important medical supplies.

On Saturday, Radio Bucharest reported that 7,614 people arrested in Timisoara had been executed, far greater than the hundreds originally reported killed in the massacre of anti-Ceausescu protesters last weekend. On Friday, residents began digging naked bodies, their feet bound with barbed wire, from mass graves around the city.

"The Securitate have . . . surpassed everybody's expectations of their ruthlessness and their pathological violence," an Oxford University Romania expert, Mark Almond, said in an Independent Television News interview broadcast here. "And I'm afraid that they will probably be treated like rabid dogs."

So far, protesters reportedly have treated captured Ceausescu loyalists relatively well, but their mood is clearly turning darker with each day of additional killing by the Securitate.

Television film Saturday showed soldiers having to fire in the air in order to protect captured pro-Ceausescu gunmen from angry crowds kicking and punching at them while shouting "Death, death!"

There also were unconfirmed Romanian broadcast reports Saturday that elite Arab commandos had joined the pro-Ceausescu forces.

"There have been snipers around on rooftops during the day, and there have been reports that some of those are Middle Eastern terrorists," British diplomat Jonathan Lamb said in a televised interview from Bucharest. "We don't know whether that's true. It's conceivable that if this is put out by the democratic forces, it is part of an attempt to gain Western support. But perhaps there's something in it. We simply don't know."

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