Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said on Tuesday crime was rising in Russia's hard-pressed armed forces and that they were becoming a target for mafia-type crime, Itar-Tass news agency reported.

"The criminal situation in the armed forces is nearing the critical level not only in terms of the number of crimes but also in their seriousness," Tass quoted Sergeyev as telling a special meeting of top ministry officials.Post-Soviet Russia's armed forces, for decades the pride of the nation, have been plunged into a deep crisis by chronic cash shortages and a decline in morals and morale.

Sergeyev said powerful criminal groups were trying to use the crisis to extend their influence to the army.

"The threat of criminal groups penetrating army units has become a real one," he said

Criminal groups are interested in getting access to lucrative military construction and supply contracts as well as to poorly supervised arms depots. Criminal leaders also view the army as a market for drugs.

President Boris Yeltsin has backed a reform plan intended to turn the huge, inefficient military machine inherited from the defunct communist empire into an affordable, compact, professional force.

It calls for the armed forces to shrink by 500,000 to 1.2 million officers and soldiers by the end of 1998. But analysts say that even with those cuts the government will have trouble finding enough money to keep the armed forces in shape.

Draft dodging by young men reluctant to do two or three years of compulsory military service in grim conditions accounts for 40 percent of the registered crimes.