'Forces of evil' scupper Shevardnadze peace drive

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The Independent Online
GEORGIA seemed on the brink of another spate of civil violence last night after the country's leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, abandoned hopes of reconciliation with rebels who had taken his Interior Minister hostage. In a dramatic break from his previously peaceful overtures to the rebels, Mr Shevardnadze made a midnight television address, calling on Georgians to fight the 'forces of evil' in their country.

Armed rebels in the West Georgian town of Zugdidi, which is a stronghold of the deposed president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, had broken into peace talks between the two sides and snatched the Interior Minister, Roman Gventsadze, and five other officials. Police said they would storm the building if the hostages had not been released by 9am this morning.

This was the second rebel attack on one of Mr Shevardnadze's aides. Last month rebels kidnapped the Deputy Prime Minister, Alexander Kavsadze. He has still not been set free.

Should an armed battle ensue, it would signal the end of Mr Shevardnadze's efforts to deal peacefully with Mr Gamsakhurdia's followers. The former Soviet foreign minister, was clearly bitterly disappointed because he had returned to his native Georgia earlier this year pledging to end the cycle of violence.

In his address, Mr Shevardnadze declared: 'Since I returned to Georgia I have not used this word, but now I will say it for the first time: we need to declare 'battle' against our enemies, against the enemies and betrayers of Georgia. Support us in this.'

Earlier he had told the ruling State Council, of which he is chairman, that he would 'fight with you to overcome the forces of evil'.

He told Georgians that he accepted full responsibility for underestimating the forces against him. 'Do not take this as something sentimental,' he said, 'but this is my personal defeat since I deceived myself. I did not realistically assess the forces fighting against Georgia.'

Since Mr Gamsakhurdia was overthrown in January the once overwhelmingly popular leader, who was elected president as the Soviet Union started to break up, has been in exile in the Chechen republic in Russia. He has vowed to return to Georgia many times, but never actually arrived.

His followers have waged a bloody hit-and-run campaign against the provisional government, attacking soldiers in the capital Tbilisi and civilians on trains in their stronghold of Western Georgia. In July, about 150 armed rebels moved into Tbilisi at dawn and took over the television and radio station, but were quickly overpowered by government forces.

At the time it was thought this might have been their last gasp, and that they might fade away in face of the parliamentary elections in October. But they have apparently decided to step up their terror campaign.

In offering a peaceful settlement, Mr Shevardnadze was trying to find a way out of the continuous attacks. 'I knew the rebels were full of ill-will and capable of anything, but my understanding was that malice has its limits,' he said in his television address. 'Their malice seems to be limitless. That was my mistake.'

Besides the armed rebels, Mr Shevardnadze has to deal with a Georgian economy that is in terrible shape. During the first six months of this year production declined by more than 50 per cent. He is also faced with increased squabbling among the 30-odd political parties in a country of only 5 million people. All of them are vowing to field candidates in the elections.

Police killed a Zimbabwean student at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow on Tuesday night after 350 African students had gone on the rampage protesting about their living conditions, according to Itar-Tass news agency. The student was hit in the neck by a policeman's bullet after he had been warned not to use indecent language and had struck the policeman with a bottle, it was reported.