Rebels take control of Abkhazia: Shevardnadze's humiliation deepens as Georgian collapse into civil war edges closer

REBEL forces completed their capture of Georgia's autonomous republic of Abkhazia yesterday, driving tens of thousands more people out of their homes along the sub-tropical Black Sea coastline and dealing another military humiliation to Georgia's leader, Eduard Shevardnadze.

'The last call we had was from the post office in Gali, saying that it was empty, all the troops had abandoned town,' a Defence Ministry official said in the capital Tbilisi. Gali and Ochanchira, also captured by Abkhazian rebels yesterday, had been the southernmost towns still controlled by the government after a year of fighting in what was once Georgia's richest tourist province.

Mr Shevardnadze's demoralised troops vanished after being trapped in Gali between Abkhazian forces and another set of rebels loyal to the ousted president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. It was unclear what happened to their important arsenal of heavy weapons, tanks and artillery.

Mr Shevardnadze said later that 120,000 people had been displaced in recent days. Officials say tens of thousands are trekking to safety through the high Caucasus mountains that rise steeply out of the Black Sea along much of the Abkhazian coast.

The loss of Abkhazia brings the Georgian state closer than ever to collapse, just two and a half years after its declaration of independence from Moscow. Bright weather, busy schoolyards, and bustle on the ornate Rustaveli boulevard in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi contrasted with the reality of long lines for bread, a plunging currency, funerals for war dead and trainloads of refugees.

'The danger of another civil war is real,' said one Western diplomat, pointing out that Gamsakhurdia loyalists had grown from a force of 200 to several thousand in the fortnight since the ultra-nationalist, charismatic ex-president returned to Georgia to relaunch his quest for power from his ethnic power-base among the western Georgians of Megrilia.

But Mr Shevardnadze still enjoys considerable support in Tbilisi and eastern Georgia. So far he has shown no sign of renewing his threat to quit despite the rebel capture on Monday of the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi, whose defence Mr Shevardnadze had bravely led from the front.

Mr Shevardnadze arrived back in his capital a shadow of his former self and angry at the lack of support from the West against what he said was a resurgence of Russian imperialism.

'When the Soviet empire was broken, East Europe was set free. The West won millions of dollars. But now the West doesn't care much about the former republics of the Soviet Union. They forget who helped them destroy the empire,' the former Soviet foreign minister told reporters. Only the United States and Germany have posted ambassadors to Tbilisi and Western diplomats in the Caucasus say they are walking a tightrope. Lacking vital commercial or strategic interest in the region, they are unwilling to risk any military or other support that might upset the balance of power in Moscow against Boris Yeltsin.

(Photograph omitted)