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Soviet army troops forcefully took over two Lithuanian airfields here recently. They said it was a defensive move against a potential threat. The airfields housed the only air force that the independent-minded Lithuanians could muster - crop-dusting planes and gliders. Mikhail Gorbachev and his soldiers continue to be bully-boys in this once-independent republic. They seize a bank here, an airfield there, always trying to provoke a response that would justify their moving in, en masse, to put down a rebellion. But Lithuania refuses to play along. The republic's young Defense Minister Audrius Butke-vicius told us that he recognizes the game, and he won't be pushed into playing it by Moscow's rules. As a result, some of his men are dying.

Butkevicius, 30, and a doctor in his civilian life, has 2,500 unarmed men working at 26 Lithuanian border posts. They are there to stop smuggling of high-quality Lithuanian goods into the rest of the Soviet Union and to make a show of controlling a border that Lithuanians hope will someday be a line between separate nations, not reluctant republics. Soviet troops have made sporadic attacks on these border guards, burning at least a dozen of their posts, beating the guards and killing at least one of them.Butkevicius' defense department can muster not more than 10,000 soldiers, most of them unarmed part-timers. On the other side, the Soviets have at least 90,000 heavily armed troops, including paratroopers and special forces ready to strike at any time. "Every day we have to face different provocations which are attempted by the Soviets," Butkevicius told us. "The aim of these provocations is to instigate military clashes between people which could serve as an excuse for the Soviets to use military force against Lithuanians."

The best Butkevicius can do in return is take a lesson from Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi and throw up a human shield of unarmed people standing in front of buildings before the Soviets seize those buildings. That didn't work last January when Soviet tanks crushed demonstrators to take over a television tower in Vilnius.

One of the more secret and insidious methods the Soviets have used to foment discord and fear has been to allow hardened criminals to escape from the prisons that the Soviets still control. And, according to Lithuania's nascent intelligence service, the KGB is also working overtime to set brushfires across the country. "Their main task is to destabilize and create tension in Lithuania," Butkevicius said.

Europeans have seen this ploy before, just prior to World War II. Adolf Hitler dummied up rumors of a planned attack on his own troops and used that as a pretext to invade Poland.

Lithuanian leaders expect it will be a long, hot summer this year, and they will be working overtime to keep tempers from boiling and to keep people from organizing massive demonstrations that would be an invitation for the Soviets to crush them.