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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Killings Shadow Rodionov Visit

Four soldiers were shot dead by their comrades Thursday in an incident which overshadowed an intended morale-boosting tour of the Far East by Defense Minister Igor Rodionov.

The incident appeared to highlight the crisis in morale and discipline in Russia's unwieldy and underfunded armed forces. Rodionov has acknowledged that the armed forces face a crisis but has ruled out a recent prediction by Kremlin security chief Alexander Lebed of a possible mutiny.

Interfax said two recent recruits, who were patrolling a military airport on the Pacific island of Sakhalin, suddenly opened fire with Kalashnikov assault rifles, killing an officer and three other members of the patrol.

The attackers then disappeared into the woods and hills with a considerable amount of weapons and ammunition, Interfax said. Two other soldiers managed to flee to safety, it added.

Interfax gave no reason for the shootings, and officials were not immediately available for comment.

Rodionov, appointed minister after President Boris Yeltsin's victory in the presidential election in July, has said he found his ministry in poor shape with uncertain prospects for the future, and wants more money to carry out delayed reforms.

He began his tour of the Far East soon after the first meeting last week of the Defense Council, set up by Yeltsin to tackle the crisis caused by cash shortages and poor administration of the armed forces.

Several cases of starvation, bullying and shooting by desperate soldiers have been reported in the region in the past few months.

Itar-Tass said Rodionov had told naval officers in the Kamchatka peninsula that there would be no blanket cuts in personnel in either the Navy or the Army.

He was visiting Vladivostok, home of the Pacific Fleet, on Thursday during a trip that will also gauge the armed forces' combat readiness.

The lack of cash in the national budget has hit the former superpower's armed forces just as badly as other state sectors. Even the limited funds that have been allocated for defense have often not been paid out.

The poor shape of the armed forces has led to mass draft dodging by young men reluctant to face poverty and negligence in their 18 months of obligatory military service.

The Defense Ministry newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda said Wednesday only 13.3 percent of youngsters called up had responded to the autumn draft so far. Another newspaper reported an increase in crimes committed by army personnel.

Rodionov backs reform but wants the government to realize that it will be costly and involve much more than just keeping the armed forces in their current condition.

Yeltsin has ordered a switch from conscription to an all-professional army by the end of the century, a goal Rodionov has said is not likely to be met.