Allies of Georgian separatists seize hostages

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The Independent Online
A GROUP of about 200 armed Chechens from the Russian side of the Caucasus mountains held two busloads of civilians hostage yesterday as they forced their way to Abkhazia to help separatists in the Black Sea region of Georgia. The incident illustrated the difficulty that President Boris Yeltsin in far-away Moscow will have in preventing nominal citizens of Russia from dragging his giant republic into the Georgian civil war.

The Chechens, a Muslim people from an autonomous region that no longer accepts Russian rule, took the hostages in the spa town of Mineralnye Vody, in former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's native county of Stavropol. Police reached an agreement with them that they would free the passengers and give up their attempt to cross the mountains, Itar-Tass news agency said. But the Chechens, having released the civilians, raced off anyway into the mountain passes leading to Abkhazia.

They were intending to join several hundred volunteers from the self-styled Confederation of Mountain Peoples, grouping about 16 different Caucasian nationalities, who are fighting on the side of the Abkhazians against what they call 'Georgian aggression'.

The Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, sent troops into the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi last week to crush an independence drive by a region of his republic where only a quarter of the population are ethnic Abkhazians.

The conflict, which has already cost more than 100 lives, could explode into a full-scale Caucasian war but both Mr Shevardnadze and Mr Yeltsin, due to meet in Moscow next week, are struggling to prevent this. Mr Yeltsin has appealed to his Caucasian citizens not to get involved, and the Russian Prosecutor's Office yesterday started criminal proceedings against the Confederation of Mountain Peoples for 'instigating ethnic strife, terrorist activities and taking hostages'. The Russian leader has also appealed for a ceasefire.

Mr Shevardnadze said yesterday that a ceasefire was impossible as long as his men faced armed attacks by the Caucasian gunmen. But he seems to be showing restraint, to give peace a chance at the Moscow talks. His military commander earlier this week threatened to attack the Abkhazians if their leader, Vladislav Ardzinba, failed to resign but Mr Shevardnadze distanced himself from this ultimatum and instead invited Mr Ardzinba to meet him in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The Abkhazian leader made the withdrawal of Georgian troops a precondition for such talks.

Lurking in the background of the Abkhazian conflict is the figure of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the former Georgian president, who was overthrown earlier this year by opposition forces who accused him of being a dictator. Mr Shevardnadze returned to take control of his native Georgia shortly afterwards, apparently with clean hands, but Mr Gamsakhurdia is convinced the former Soviet foreign minister orchestrated his downfall. Mr Gamsakhurdia originally came from Abkhazia, where his popularity was always highest, and he is now sheltering in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Which leads one to suspect that he is taking his revenge by proxy on his arch-enemy, Mr Shevardnadze.

The Georgians are convinced of it and yesterday they said they had evidence that Caucasian fighters had been in Abkhazia for months preparing for war.

DUSHANBE - Pro-Communist supporters killed eight members of the democratic opposition in Kurgan-Tyube, in southern Tajikistan, yesterday morning, then threatened to attack the town, the Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDT) said, AFP reports.

A group of armed men shot and killed five PDT members in their offices. Armed men then also killed three members of the Lale Badakhchan party, made up of Shias from Pamir, in their homes.

The killings came just three days after gunmen assassinated Tajikistan's state prosecutor, Nurullo Khuvaidullayev, and his chauffeur early on Monday. A gang had burst into his offices two months ago and demanded that he halt the trial of Dushanbe's former mayor, Maksud Ikramov, who was arrested in January on charges of corruption.

A frontier guard was also killed near the border with Afghanistan, Itar-Tass reported. Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic, has been on the edge of civil war for many months, and armed Communist groups have engaged in a guerrilla war in the south.