Georgian dragnet for rebels

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Georgia's leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, sent 3,000 troops to the west of the country yesterday to hunt down anti-government rebels who had rejected an ultimatum to free the kidnapped Georgian Interior Minister, Roman Gventsadze, and five other officials. However, it was unclear how effective such a large force could be against a small number of rebels, who had spirited their captives to an unknown hiding- place.

The troops, who represent about one-quarter of Georgia's national guard, are backed by armoured cars. Last night they were heading for the rebel stronghold of Zugdidi, a town that has always been loyal to the deposed president Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Vowing to crush the 'forces of evil' in the former Soviet republic, Mr Shevardnadze gave the rebels until 9am yesterday to release their hostages, who are apparently being held in the autonomous Georgian region of Abkhazia that borders on the Black Sea.

Georgian government officials were conducting negotiations for the release of the hostages with the Abkhazian authorities. A senior Abkhazian official said any large-scale assault against the rebels was likely to fail. Finding the hostages would be 'like looking for a needle in a haystack', he said.

Mr Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, returned to his native Georgia earlier this year to help put the country back on its feet after the elected president, Mr Gamsakhurdia, had been deposed in January following two weeks of bloody fighting in the capital, Tbilisi.

The deposed president has been in exile in the Chechen republic inside Russia threatening to return to Georgia, but has not yet done so. Yesterday, Georgia accused Mr Gamsakhurdia of masterminding the kidnapping of the interior ministry officials, and asked Moscow for help in smashing what it called his 'terrorist cell'.

In Moscow, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexander Rosanov, described the kidnapping as an act of terrorism and added: 'It is unacceptable to use the territory of the Russian federation to organise such acts and those who perpetrate them should be punished severely by law.'

Also in Moscow, representatives of Mr Gamsakhurdia denied any involvement with the rebels who carried out the kidnapping and charged that those who had organised it were people 'brought to despair by the Shevardnadze regime'.

All males aged 18 to 45 in the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorny Karabakh were called up for military service yesterday because the region's authorities believed they were facing a new attack from Azeri forces.

In four years, more than 2,000 people have been killed in fierce clashes between Armenian and Azeri forces over the disputed mountainous region of Nagorny Karabakh, which lies inside Azeri territory.

The presidential press office in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, said the orders were outlined in a telegram from Karabakh.

(Photograph omitted)