Georgia close to civil war

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MOSCOW - Fighting raged in the capital of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia yesterday and local officials said many people were killed as the former Soviet republic plunged towards civil war.

Radio Russia said Georgian forces swept into the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi on the Black Sea coast and seized the airport. It said the Abkhazian parliament was being shelled from vessels, presumably Georgian.

Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia last month, angering hardliners in Georgia's provisional government, which is led by the former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze.

In Sukhumi, Abkhazia's First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Bagapsh, accused Georgia of launching 'an invasion' of his region. 'There can be no deal with Georgia unless Georgia pulls out all its troops,' he said in the virtually empty council of ministers (government) building, from which the boom of heavy artillery could clearly be heard.

'We will not talk under the barrel of a gun,' Mr Bagapsh said, adding that Abkhazia had ordered the mobilisation of all men up to the age of 40.

Georgian officials say rebel forces loyal to the ousted president Zviad Gamsakhurdia are holding the country's kidnapped Interior Minister and five officials in Abkhazia. They dispatched 3,000 troops to western Georgia on Thursday to search for the hostages.

An Abkhazian parliament spokesman, Beslan Bargandzhia, told Itar-Tass news agency that 10 Abkhazians had been killed in street fighting with Georgian troops. Georgia's Interior Ministry reported cannon and artillery fire in eastern Sukhumi, saying one person had died and many were wounded. Russian television said tanks were involved in the operations.

Azeri forces were gaining ground in the bloody fight for Nagorny Karabakh yesterday, despite a call by the Armenian leaders of the embattled enclave the previous day for a general mobilisation, agencies report.

Stepanakert, the capital of the mostly Armenian-populated enclave, and neighbouring Askeran came under rocket and artillery fire all day yesterday, Itar-Tass reported. Ambulances sent to the scene were having difficulty dealing with the large number of casualties in the city of about 70,000 people, it added.