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Moscow’s Communist Faithful Hold Rally for Honecker : Asylum: Russian officials appear to back away from the deadline for ouster of ex-East German leader.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Grebenshikov is a reporter in The Times' Moscow bureau

Although he’s holed up inside the Chilean Embassy in Moscow, Erich Honecker, the former leader of East Germany now wanted in Germany for manslaughter, is not without defense.

“If a car drives Honecker out, the only thing for me to do is to lie under its wheels, and I’ll do it, too,” Pyotr P. Berdnikov, a Russian veteran of World War II, proclaimed grimly as he stood guard outside the embassy Monday.

Berdnikov was standing in a row of about half a dozen people in front of the Chilean Embassy gates. They represent the archconservative political movement Working Moscow, a small group of Communist faithful. The minute size of the crowd indicates that, during such tumultuous times, Honecker is not widely loved in Moscow.

But on Monday, Russian officials appeared to back away from their order that Honecker must leave the country by midnight tonight or face “specific measures” to expedite his departure.

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Honecker sought refuge in Chile’s Embassy after this threat was made last Thursday. Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev, however, was quoted by the Russian Information Agency on Monday as saying: “The Russian Federation has nothing to do with it altogether. It is a matter for Germany and Chile to decide.”

Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, chairman of the Russian legislature, the Supreme Soviet, told the Interfax news agency, “Erich Honecker’s fate is not a matter of policy, and our government should not have jumped into this mess.”

Honecker is accused by Germany of ordering East German border guards to shoot to kill at their compatriots attempting to scale the Berlin Wall. His order resulted in the deaths of about 200 people between 1971 and 1989, German officials say.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has been adamant in demanding Honecker’s extradition to Germany. But the small crowd gathered at the Chilean Embassy gates is ready to go to great lengths to prevent that from happening.

“He is a war veteran just like me and a hero of the Soviet Union,” Berdnikov said. “I feel I must help him now as he helped us then. Besides, since when does Russia kick out its guests? It’s utter shame for all of us--only the democrats don’t know what shame is.”

Raisa E. Ivanova, a physicist, agreed. “This is the ultimate betrayal of our last ally, and we want the world and Honecker himself to know that not all in Russia think like our current rulers.”

Their vigil started last Friday, when a crowd of about 200 assembled before the Chilean Embassy gates, showing sympathy for the East German “guest” and protesting the decision of the Russian government to extradite him.

“We lit up a fire near the gates, shared sandwiches and sang our wartime songs,” Ivanova said. “It was just like the old times for us, we were sticking together and holding our ground.

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“And you know what?” Ivanova added. “At about midnight a busload of democratic youngsters arrived and tried to chant anti-Honecker slogans. Very politely we explained to them the facts, and in 20 minutes they were gone. Three of them later returned and joined us for the night watch.”

From time to time, members of the group march with their red flags around the embassy compound in the hope of giving Honecker a glimpse of his last guard. By their account, Honecker sent out an embassy official with “warm words of gratitude and greetings,” but they had no other communication with him.

If the situation with Honecker is not brought to a speedy end, it may evolve into a legal battle over whether Russia has a right to extradite him, because there is no Russian law on extradition, only a Soviet law. Conservatives claim that Russia has no diplomatic recognition from any Western country and, therefore, cannot decide Honecker’s fate. They plan to bring their case to the Soviet Constitutional Committee. But Russian officials, trying to woo German favor, wanted to oblige Kohl by sending Honecker back.

Chilean officials have said they will take Honecker only if he has a German passport. But to obtain such a document, he first would have to go to Germany, where jail and a trial await him.

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Still, there are places willing to give him a friendlier welcome. North Korea has asked Moscow to allow Honecker to go to Pyongyang for medical treatment, its official news agency has reported.

The leader of the defiant Chechen republic, a small Muslim enclave in the Russian Federation, has offered Honecker asylum in an apparent jab at Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin.

The underground Russian Orthodox Church has offered to let him stay in one of its secret monasteries somewhere in Russia.

And even a newspaper in the central Russian industrial city of Magnitogorsk, where Honecker worked as a builder in the 1930s, has entered the competition for the honor of hosting him.

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