CIA agent's murder is a hard blow for Georgia: Freddie Woodruff's death reflects the threats from both past and present. Andrew Higgins reports from Tbilisi

THEY KNEW each other from the Piano Bar at the Metechi Palace Hotel, one of the few places left in Georgia where foreigners feel safe. Marina, 29, tall, slim and jangling silver bracelets, served drinks. She also spoke English, Russian and Georgian. She had a university degree in philology.

Freddie Woodruff was 45, married - happily by most accounts - and worked as regional affairs officer at the US embassy. He had a thick Oklahoma accent, a degree in theology, kept a handkerchief in his jacket pocket and played the amiable good ol' boy. 'He wanted to know about everything, about our life, how we lived. There were no barriers. He was so friendly. I loved him - as a friend,' says Marina. Everyone liked Freddie.

But few knew his real job: CIA station chief. He had been in and out of Georgia since the end of 1992 and was only a few days away from a final flight home to Virginia, where, he told friends, he was going on a Czech language course to prepare for new posting to Prague.

Mr Woodruff, or 'Freddie' as he preferred, did return home - in a flag-draped coffin, escorted aboard a US government jet by James Woolsey, director of the CIA. Mr Woolsey had rushed to Tbilisi from Moscow, cutting short meetings with his Russian counterpart, Yevgeny Primakov. As the coffin was loaded, he conferred with the Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, for an hour, guarded by young men with assault rifles.

Marina from the Piano Bar was the last person to see Freddie alive. She was sitting next to him in the back of a Niva car when a single bullet smashed open his head. They were returning to Tbilisi after a jaunt two weeks ago to Mount Kazbek on the Georgian Military Highway. The driver was Eldar Guguladze, head of Mr Shev ardnadze's security. In the passenger seat was a second Georgian woman. Marina was sitting on the left behind the driver, Freddie on the right. His window, says Marina, was open.

The car had just passed the village of Natakhtari and was approaching a fork. One road branches off to Sukhumi, a Black Sea resort ravaged by shelling, the other to Tbilisi. There was a single shot. There was no shattered glass and no screaming. Then Marina noticed Freddie. 'I looked at him. It is such an awful feeling when you know you cannot do anything.' They rushed to hospital, she says, but it was too late.

'I sometimes wish I had been killed instead. He could have done a lot more to help this country than I can,' says Marina, now back at work in the Piano Bar serving guests: a telephone consultant from New Jersey; a morose professor from Berlin nostalgic for days when he could do research on early Christian architecture in the Caucasus without getting shot; and a young Georgian claiming to work for state security. 'If it had been me there would not have been such a scandal,' Marina said.

Nor would the art and aims of post- Cold War espionage have been placed under such scrutiny. The main event of US-Soviet confrontation has faded. Its spies, though, have not. Some are co-operating like never before. Witness Mr Woolsey's talks with Mr Primakov. But a new rivalry is beginning to stir in the crumbling purlieu of the Soviet empire. Moscow and Washington both claim stability as their goal. But trust is fragile. So the spies probe, seeking out allies and contacts, as in countless Third World backwaters in the past. Freddie Woodruff was a part of this.

Across Russia's periphery there is a cautious but growing US presence. Special Forces have been to Georgia to help train Mr Shevardnadze's guards. Georgians are studying at bases in America. The US embassy in Tbilisi occupies a large 19th century mansion. The Russian mission is squeezed into a converted cultural centre alongside the Israelis, a refugee committee, a trading company and a South Ossetia theatre group. The contrast reflects wishful thinking, not reality. The real power in the Caucasus, as in Central Asia, is Russia.

When Freddie Woodruff joined the CIA in 1978 it was to wage an ideological crusade. It took him to Leningrad, Turkey, Sudan and Ethiopia. Georgia was different. Moscow and Washington were on the same side. But Thomas Gamkrelidze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's foreign affairs committee, sees the murder as a decisive marker: 'The game is open now. They are playing an open match.' He has just returned from Washington, where he had this message for State Department and Pentagon officials: 'There will always be rivalry with Russia. In the rivalry we are on the side of the United States.'

Mikhail Naneishvili, head of the Liberal Democratic National Party, talks of inviting in US troops. It is not a role Washington would relish: 'We are completing a fight that is not just 70 years old or 200 years old. It has been going on for half a millennium. This is our struggle to join the West.'

The more paranoid believe Mr Woodruff was killed to stop this from happening. Tbilisi rumour blames one of his companions and points to the fact that Mr Guguladze, the driver and security boss, has been suspended. Marina, though, insists the bullet came from outside the car, probably a random shot by bandits wanting nothing more than cigarettes, petrol or, at worst, the car. 'It was a blind bullet. It was an accident. I am 100 per cent sure.'

Eduard Shevardnadze sounds a bit less sure: 'I want to believe and do believe that this was an accident. The US has helped Georgia in so many ways that to have an American diplomat killed here is a real tragedy.' He says that Mr Guguladze has not only been suspended but replaced. According to the First Deputy Interior Minister, Mikhail Osadze, the case is all but closed: a young man will be charged, one of three picked up soon after the murder. All are said to have been drunk and members of a para- military band. Washington, which has sent out forensic experts and agents from the FBI and the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, has yet to give its verdict.

Whoever did it, the murder carries an alarming message for Georgians: no one, not even the US, the last superpower to which so many look in hope, can escape the turmoil. Levan Mikaladze, a presidential adviser, keeps a book on his desk: a Heritage Foundation report, Making the World Safe for America. Far more difficult is how to make Georgia safe for anyone.

(Photograph omitted)

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