Georgia rebels accused of mass killings

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The Independent Online
TBILISI (AFP) - Between 800 and 1,000 people, mostly Georgian civilians, were killed by Abkhazian separatists who seized the Black Sea resort town of Gagra, Georgian officials were quoted as saying yesterday.

A Georgian official responsible for security affairs told the Russian language daily Svobodnaya Gruzia that 'since 1 October, a total of 800 people were killed in repressive actions in the Gagra region'. The Moscow-based Itar-Tass news agency said Georgian officials had put the death-toll at about 1,000 and had that 'the massacres are continuing'.

'Dozens of bodies were thrown into mass graves on a beach (while) hundreds of others were burned in a Gagra sports stadium and on Gagarin square in the town centre,' Itar-Tass quoted an unnamed local official in Gagra as saying. Georgian press reports accused Abkhazian nationalists and their ethnic allies from Caucasus regions in neighbouring Russia - notably from the self-proclaimed Chechen republic - of 'barbarous' acts.

Georgian authorities said that more than 30,000 people fled Gagra and nearby villages when separatist forces took control of the region between last Thursday and this Tuesday. Gagra itself fell to the Abkhaz rebels on Friday.

Yesterday Georgian troops were digging in to defend Sukhumi, the capital of the breakaway Abkhazia region. Arms were distributed to volunteers and defensive ditches were dug on the outskirts of Sukhumi, said Tamaz Nadareyshvily, the deputy president of the Abkhazian parliament, which represents the Georgian community.

The Georgian capital, Tbilisi, was tense yesterday, four days before the country's first post-Communist elections, as the war of words between Georgia and Russia mounted.

Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia's leader, and the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, exchanged 'sharp' words in a telephone conversation yesterday about the worsening crisis, Itar-Tass said. Georgian forces have lost control of virtually all of northern Abkhazia from Sukhumi to Russia's southern border since the separatist offensive was launched last week.

Mr Shevardnadze blames Russia for not preventing volunteers from the Caucasus from entering Abkhazia to fight beside the separatists, but Russia, which has peace-keeping troops in the zone, has accused Georgian troops of sparking the conflict. Itar-Tass said that Mr Yeltsin had called Mr Shevardnadze to discuss bilateral relations and 'basic issues' in the conflict, and it described the talks as 'sharp and to the point'.

President Yeltsin announced on Tuesday that Russian troops were taking control of the Abkhazia section of the Moscow-Tbilisi railway, but Mr Shevardnadze countered that Russian troops 'on Georgian territory have no legal authority for taking control of the rail lines'.

In Brussels, a spokesman for Nato said that the Georgian Foreign Minister, Alexander Chidzaidze, had sent a letter calling for the alliance's help in settling the conflict. 'We are deeply worried,' said the Nato Secretary-General, Manfred Worner, acknowledging receipt of the letter. 'I think we have enough conflicts, crises and wars in the whole Euro-Atlantic area. We do not need any more,' he added.

In Tbilisi, Kent Brown, the US ambassador to Georgia, said yesterday that the country's borders should not be changed by force.

'We resolutely are committed to CSCE (Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe) principles, which reject the change of borders by force,' he said.