Key Georgian City Falls to Abkhazian Rebels

REBEL forces have captured the capital of the Georgian region of Abkhazia, according to reports yesterday from the headquarters of Russian peacekeeping forces based in the region.

According to the official Russian Itar-Tass news agency, fighting was still going on in parts of the besieged Black Sea port city of Sukhumi, but rebel Abkhazian forces had taken the government building in the city center yesterday afternoon. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who had vowed to stay with Georgian defenders until the end, had fled the city, the Russian forces said.

The Georgian leader has appealed to world leaders to intervene, warning that a rebel victory would lead to a complete breakup of the former Soviet republic.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered the Russian military to ``render maximum possible assistance'' in evacuating Mr. Shevardnadze to safety, the Russian Foreign Ministry said yesterday. Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, had repeatedly refused to leave the city, turning down even the requests of his own security guard. Blaming Russia

Shevardnadze, whose whereabouts were not known after the city's fall, blamed Russia for the defeat, Reuters reported. Georgian television said he was in Sukhumi, but that his life was not in danger. ``Sukhumi could have been saved even yesterday. Only Russia could have done it and we asked Moscow to do it,'' Shevardnadze's statement said.

``Georgia has been brought to its knees, but unfortunately this was not enough. One reason is that external forces played the card of betrayal well,'' the statement said.

Earlier in the day an apparently desperate message from the Georgian leader was read over Georgian national television, asking why promised reinforcements had not reached the city, which has been under heavy rebel attack since earlier this month.

``If the defenders of Sukhumi do not receive significant help very soon, the enemy will take control of the city,'' Shevardnadze said, according to Reuters. ``It is inexplicable why they are not helping those who are fighting the enemy. Everything is being decided not in terms of days but in terms of hours and minutes.''

Shevardnadze, reportedly holed up on the city outskirts, complained of desertions in the ranks and panic among Georgian troops. Reports from Sukhumi say it has been subjected to heavy bombardment from Abkhazian forces who control the hills surrounding the coastal resort city. Cutting the airlink

Sukhumi has been completely cut off for days since the rebel forces cut the airlink, shooting down aircraft and shelling the airport.

Russian warships from the Black Sea Fleet evacuated about 3,500 refugees from the city, Russian officials said yesterday. The refugees, mostly women, children, and the elderly, as well as wounded, were taken to the Russian port of Sochi and the Georgian port of Poti. A relief column of Georgian troops from the Georgian port of Ochamchira has been trying to break the blockade.

An Abkhazian delegation flew yesterday to Moscow from Sochi, Itar-Tass reported. They are reportedly planning to fly on to Geneva for talks with Georgian officials under United Nations auspices. ``We are ready to cease fire and to resolve all our problems at a conference table,'' Abkhazian spokesman Beslan Barganzhia told Itar-Tass.

Georgian officials bitterly blame Russia for failing to enforce a cease-fire agreement negotiated by them in late July and supposedly guaranteed by Russian peacekeeping troops.

``Georgia pinned much hope on Russia's assistance,'' said David Demetrashvili, Georgian Embassy spokesman in Moscow. ``Nevertheless, it is the third time that the Abkhazians are violating an armistice. And Russia is helping them with weapons, foodstuffs; helping them morally and in all possible ways.'' Russian officials deny such charges.

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