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YELTSIN BLAMES `INCOMPETENT' BANK OFFICIALS

President Boris Yeltsin blasted top Russian bankers as incompetent and said Thursday they were to blame for a financial crisis last week that caused panic and forced a halt in trading.

Yeltsin also slammed the government over its role in the crisis for failing to repay the banks on time for loans to the state, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.The fledgling Russian financial market was paralyzed for nearly two days last week amid rumors some large banks had become insolvent. The crisis has eased somewhat, but the markets remain nervous.

"The difficult situation in the banking sector in the last two weeks is a result of many bankers lacking skills to work under new conditions," Yeltsin said. "Still, the Central Bank also was slow to act."

Yeltsin was unsmiling and stern as he read his blunt statement in the Kremlin to the leaders of some of Russia's most powerful banks.

The tough lecture comes at a rough time for Russia's banks, which have been seeking government support for a crackdown on the growing number of violent and often fatal attacks on bankers.

The bankers also have sought Yeltsin's support to smooth out the private sector's relations with the Central Bank, which has recently tightened reserve requirements in an effort to stamp out inflation.

The Central Bank intervened massively on the market last week by buying $135 million in treasury bills Aug. 24 and $225 million the next day. The private banks felt that was too little too late.