Georgia Rebels Press Bid To Oust Besieged Leader

Opposition warns that civil war could spread to entire republic

THE street fighting that has destroyed much of downtown Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, was in part sparked by concerns the Transcaucasian republic would not receive foreign economic aid if President Zviad Gamsakhurdia remained in power.

The fighting in Georgia, the only former Soviet republic not to join the new Commonwealth of Independent States, has been raging for almost two weeks and shows little sign of easing. An attempt at a cease-fire last weekend never took hold and several hundred are estimated to have been killed in fighting, the Tass news agency reported yesterday.

The battle centers around the heavily damaged parliament building, which is encircled by opposition fighters led by Tengiz Kitovani, commander of the Georgian National Guard before it was disbanded last summer. They are attempting to oust Mr. Gamsakhurdia, who is holed up in a basement bunker with several hundred well-armed supporters.

Several prominent members of Gamsakhurdia's team have defected to the other side during the crisis, including former Deputy Defense Minister Besik Kutateladze. At least one prominent rebel leader, Georgi Chanturia, expressed confidence that Gamsakhurdia would be ousted, but went on to say the opposition did not have the strength to bring a quick end to the fighting.

Opposition leaders accuse Gamsakhurdia, who was elected by an overwhelming majority in May presidential elections, of behaving like a dictator, muzzling the news media, and jailing political opposition leaders.

Gamsakhurdia counters that his opponents are attempting a coup. He adds he is willing to compromise by holding new parliamentary elections and granting the opposition increased access to the mass media. But he vows he will not be bullied into stepping down as president.

Tanks and artillery used in the street fighting have reduced some of Rustaveli Prospect, the city's main thoroughfare, to rubble. Before the outbreak of fighting, people enjoyed strolling along the tree-lined avenue. Now, residents and renegade fighters must crouch for cover as Rustaveli has turned into a sniper's alley.

Tass reported fighting in other sections of the city, and opposition leaders have warned that the entire republic could soon be engulfed in civil war.

Turmoil is nothing new to Georgia, the scene of almost daily demonstrations for the past several months. A dress rehearsal for the current conflict came in late September, when violent clashes between the opposition and pro-Gamsakhurdia forces took place following the arrest of Mr. Chanturia. At first, clubs and stones were the preferred weapons, but eventually both sides armed themselves. When the more advanced weapons were not used, however, tension seemed to ease.

The December speech of United States Secretary of State James Baker III at Princeton University on the situation in the then-Soviet Union gave new life to opposition efforts to oust Gamsakhurdia, says Lisa Kaestner, an American freelance journalist living in Tbilisi. In the speech, Mr. Baker singled out Georgia for being undemocratic, adding the republic did not deserve foreign aid.

The secretary of state's comments alarmed many opposition leaders, who are counting on US aid to help revive Georgia's sagging economy. Currently, essentials such as butter, sugar, and gasoline are almost impossible to obtain in the republic.

"The Western world in the future isn't going to give any aid to Georgia," said former Prime Minister Tengiz Sigua, now an opposition leader, in a speech Dec. 16. "Gamsakhurdia's policies are bringing us to the total isolation of Georgia."

"Every hour, every day, every month is taking us closer to catastrophe for the economy, and that's why we have to try to overthrow the regime," he said. Mr. Sigua and others said at the time that Gamsakhurdia should be ousted by the new year, adding the overthrow should be achieved by peaceful means. Protests and hunger strikes followed, but before long the fighting broke out.

The opposition presently is a broad and loose coalition that not only includes Mr. Kitovani's forces, but also fighters from a mysterious paramilitary group known as the Mkhedrioni. The opposition groups share the same goal - Gamsakhurdia's removal - but they differ in tactics. Some favor the storming of parliament, while others say that with Gamsakhurdia cornered the opposition should simply wait him out.

The differences of opinion among the opposition are not limited to military matters. On Wednesday, rebel leaders met in an attempt to form what they called a coalition of democratic forces. Djaba Ioseliani, leader of the Mkhedrioni, says the coalition would be needed to rule following Gamsakhurdia's ouster. But Chanturia says the National-Democratic Party, which he leads, will not participate in any coalition.

Such infighting threatens to subvert any effort to rebuild the republic after the president's removal.

"They're all against the president," said Ms. Kaestner, the freelance journalist. "If the president is ousted there will be a lot of dialogue - hopefully peaceful dialogue."

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