Georgian leader survives shell blast

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The Independent Online
THE Georgian leader, Eduard Shev ardnadze, was lucky to be alive after a shell exploded near his limousine while he was on an inspection tour of the rebel Black Sea region of Abkhazia, it emerged yesterday.

An aide said the incident happened on Sunday when Mr Shevardnadze was being driven to meet government troops in the town of Shroma about 10 miles north of the regional capital, Sukhumi. 'When they were passing a tank on the road, a shell fired from the Abkhazian side hit the tank and blew it up. The car was only a few metres away and Mr Shevardnadze narrowly escaped death.'

The Georgian leader had travelled to the region after an upsurge in the year-long fighting at the end of last week. Mr Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, has had little success in bringing peace to his own republic since he returned last year.

Fierce fighting on the eastern front in Abkhazia has claimed the lives of hundreds of fighters on both sides in the past three days, according to Abkazian and Georgian military sources quoted by Interfax yesterday. The news agency quoted Georgian military headquarters as saying that their troops had killed at least 300 of the 500 Abkhazian fighters who landed at Tamysh in the eastern Ochamchire region last Friday.

Abkhazian leaders in their stronghold of Gudauta claimed that 350 Georgian fighters had been killed or injured since Friday in an area 40 miles from Sukhumi.

The conflict began last August when Mr Shevardnadze, then surrounded by the nationalistic war lords who had overthrown President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, sent troops into Sukhumi in response to separatist attempts by the region. The Georgian leader has since dismissed the military hawks on his ruling council and, in various peace talks brokered by Russia's Boris Yeltsin, shown his readiness for a ceasefire.

But the Georgians say units of the Russian army, with or without the knowledge of the politicians in Moscow, are helping the Abkhazian rebels and giving them sophisticated weapons which they could not possibly have otherwise.

At the weekend the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, warned both Georgia and Abkhazia that they would face 'harsh economic pressure' from neighbouring Russia if they did not make peace.