Twelve prominent Zviadists–associates of the late president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, violent opponents of the Georgian government–escaped from a Tbilisi prison during the night of September 30-October 1. The escapees include former National Guard commander Loti Kobalia, who has been serving a life sentence for gangsterism and murders committed during the 1993 Zviadist armed rising, and Gamsakhurdia’s finance minister, Guram Absandze, who has been on trial since 1999, charged with organizing and bankrolling the 1998 assassination attempt against President Eduard Shevardnadze.
The authorities have not officially released the names of the other fugitives, but have hinted at some well-known names. They apparently also include participants in the 1998 assault on Shevardnadze and in the subsequent seizure of five United Nations military observers in the western Georgian region of Mingrelia. It is unclear whether the escapees also include the three detained associates of the rebel Lieutenant-Colonel Akaki Eliava, a Zviadist who was killed in a firefight with security forces in July of this year. Eliava’s remaining armed supporters in Mingrelia have been demanding the release of those and other “political” prisoners.
Mingrelia was Gamsakhurdia’s stronghold and remains the focus of Zviadist attempts to stage a comeback. Eliava led an abortive military rebellion there in 1998. His men and other diehard Zviadists have since repeatedly threatened to launch “armed struggle” from that area against Shevardnadze, whom they regard as an illegitimate president. The population of Mingrelia has not responded to such calls. Zviadism in that region is almost certainly a thing of the past. A more recent problem in Mingrelia is posed by local anti-Abkhaz armed groups, which conduct both guerrilla and smuggling operations across the Georgian-Abkhaz demarcation line. The Georgian authorities recently arrested guerrilla commander Dato Shengelia, which provoked threats of violent retaliation from his men and sympathetic groups there.
The Zviadists’ escape in Tbilisi was facilitated by lax detention conditions and by complicity among the prison staff. That maximum-security prison had, along with other penitentiaries, recently been transferred from the Internal Affairs Ministry’s jurisdiction into that of the Justice Ministry. Some Zviadists and other detainees were being held in the prison’s hospital, from which they dug–probably not undetected–an escape tunnel nearly 30 meters (almost 100 feet) long. At least some of the fugitives are, moreover, believed to have been let out through the prison’s gates by sympathizers inside. The authorities have arrested and are interrogating a score of members of the prison’s staff.
In a broadcast to the country yesterday, Shevardnadze warned against a possible eruption of civil conflict of the kind which plagued Georgia in 1990-95. He remarked that such a development would dovetail with “our ill-wishers’ expectations of destabilization in Georgia”–an allusion to the Russian traces in both the 1995 and the 1998 assassination attempts against Shevardnadze. The authorities have launched a countrywide hunt for the fugitives and have offered monetary rewards for information which would lead to their capture.
In recent months, Shevardnadze reactivated his earlier initiative for “national reconciliation” with violence-prone opponents such as the Zviadists and the Mkhedrioni [Knights]. The reconciliation involves, in essence, amnesty or pardon in return for acceptance of the constitution and pledges of peaceful behavior. The Mkhedrioni seem to have gone along with that presidential initiative. Among the deeply divided Zviadists, some factions have accepted while others have spurned the national reconciliation. In August of this year, Shevardnadze used his presidential powers to pardon forty-four convicts, including Zviadists, former National Guardsmen and Mkhedrioni. But he either declined to act or deferred the decision in 48 cases, mostly of Zviadists and involving grave crimes committed in the course of the civil conflicts. Zviadists, including their several deputies in the current parliament, classify those detainees as “political prisoners” and demand their release (Kavkasia Press, Prime-News, Georgian Television, Tbilisi Radio, October 1, 2; see the Monitor, February 24, April 10, 26, July 13, 28).
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