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Cosmonauts: We're not stranded, lonely

The two ex-Soviet cosmonauts circling the Earth went on television Saturday night to reassure the public that they're safe and working hard, despite the many difficulties caused by the turmoil back home.

Just one day before, television had reported that economic troubles would leave the cosmonauts unable to communicate with the home planet for nine hours a day because controllers have abandoned expensive communication aboard ships.

Commonwealth TV said there had been rumors that the cosmonauts were in poor health, were stranded in space and were on strike to protest being neglected.

But then the screen showed the two smiling cosmonauts answering questions about their condition.

"As you see, we are working now," cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev said. "It's Saturday night. We are preparing our spacesuits, preparing our station and scientific equipment for working in outer space. As you see, we have plenty of work to do. Sometimes, we even have to work on our regular days off."

He also denied that he and fellow cosmonaut Alexander Volkov were in any danger or were stranded.

"We have a spaceship at our immediate disposal and in case of emergency we can return to Earth within minutes," Krikalev said. "And we shall use this spaceship on our scheduled landing."

Volkov also dismissed the rumors about their poor health, saying: "If the doctors allow us to go into outer space, that's proof we're in good health."

The demise of the Soviet government and independence of the former republics have delivered a severe blow to the former superpower's prestigious space program.

The chief space agency, Glavkosmos, has been broken up and the space program thrown into disarray, delaying Krikalev's return for months.

Krikalev, who blasted into orbit on May 18, had been scheduled for a routine, three-month mission on the space station Mir.

But the return was delayed after the failed coup in August.

Officials now say Krikalev and Volkov will be brought home on March 23. That would give Krikalev 311 days in space, about two months short of the 366-day world record held by Musa Manarov.

Volkov replaced Krikalev's original partner months ago.

Czar's bones? Secretary of State James Baker said Saturday he would send American forensics experts to identify bones and skeletons said to be those of Russian Czar Nicholas II and his family.

Baker was taken to see the remains at the Department of Criminal Pathology in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where the bones and some intact skeletons were laid on a table.

Russia's last czar was executed here along with his wife, Alexandra, and his children in July 1918 on the orders of the country's new Bolshevik leaders. Nicholas abdicated in March 1917, ending the nearly 300-year rule of the Romanov dynasty.

According to U.S. officials, Russian scientists 10 years ago found what they believed was the burial site after reviewing notes left by the Bolsheviks. They tested the ground for acid and unearthed nine sets of bones and skeletons but kept their discovery secret.

Baker in Uzbekistan: Secretary of State James Baker held talks Saturday with President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, the Central Asian republic likely to be most resistant to pressure for economic and political reform.

Baker, near the end of a tour of predominantly Moslem ex-Soviet republics, is attempting to draw the countries closer to the West and dilute the influence that fundamentalist Iran is trying to exercise in the region.

Oil strike: Northern Russian oil producers went on strike Saturday, halting work at 96 wells in the autonomous Komi republic, Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Komi in 1989 accounted for 19-million tons of total Soviet output of 607-million tons.

Not so eternal: The eternal flame marking the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Tallinn, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Estonia, has been extinguished because of a gas shortage.

The Russian Information Agency says some Estonian lawmakers have appealed to Russian President Boris Yeltsin for gas, "especially for maintaining the eternal flame."

Estonia and the other Baltic republics _ Latvia and Lithuania _ relied on the Soviet Union for gas supplies, but now are having difficulty getting fuel from Russia.

_ AP, Reuters.