Russia's ex-KGB chief warns secret elite over feud

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MOSCOW, Oct 31 (Reuters) The former head of the Soviet KGB warned today that a conflict between rival Russian security services could lead to ''big trouble'' and urged feuding clans to unite around President Vladimir Putin.

Details have emerged of a feud between rival groups of secret service officers who form the bedrock of Putin's team. Observers warn it could split the ruling elite at a critical time when Putin is preparing to leave office.

The battle came to light this month after agents from the Federal Security Service (FSB), controlled by Nikolai Patrushev, arrested senior officers from the anti-drugs service, controlled by Viktor Cherkesov, for corruption and abuse of office.

Vladimir Kryuchkov, Soviet KGB chief from 1988 to 1991, published an open letter in the Zavtra newspaper on Tuesday warning that the sides must make peace.

''We approach the sides in the conflict and say: 'Make a step towards each other!' Otherwise -- and you should trust our experience -- there could be big trouble and that must not be allowed,'' the letter says.

''We see that the sides are united by a belief in Putin as the national leader, as the factor for stability in the country. Many people share this belief and are ready to support any steps that would lead to mutual understanding of the sides.'' The letter was signed by four other senior ex-KGB officials.

One of the signatories, Nikolai Leonov, a member of parliament and former head of a KGB department, told Reuters the letter was genuine. ''Yes, I put my name to that letter,'' Leonov said.

Putin, a former lieutenant-colonel in the KGB who served in East Germany, has crafted a power base dominated by former colleagues from the secret services.

They form a closed circle -- some say a caste -- that allowed Putin to undermine powerful oligarchs who opposed his rule and to enforce order after the chaos of the immediate post-Communist era, in the 1990s ''DESTRUCTIVE FORCES'' Kryuchkov, 83, was sacked and arrested after taking part in a failed hardline communist coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991.

One of the KGB's top Cold War spymasters, Kryuchkov has repeatedly slammed Gorbachev and Russia's former President Boris Yeltsin for their role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He has made few public comments about the current Kremlin chief but has attended annual spy galas patronised by Putin.

''Discord between certain special services must not be used for dirty ends by external and internal destructive forces,'' Kryuchkov's letter warns.

Kryuchkov cited an open letter published by Cherkesov, one of his former KGB officers, who warned this month that infighting among the security services could undermine stability and herald a return the chaos of the 1990s.

Putin, who has scolded Cherkesov for making his views public, stepped in to ease the rivalries this month by boosting Cherkesov's power.

''Russian society does not need discord but internal calm,'' Kryuchkov said in the letter. ''So it is important that our (security) community must become the source for internal calm so cherished by the nation.'' REUTERS ARB PM1824

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