8 Jailed Rebels Snatched Out of Georgian Prison

From Reuters

Rebel forces Friday snatched eight jailed opposition politicians from prison cells engulfed in flames after a night of fierce shelling of the former Soviet republic's besieged Parliament.

Those freed included the main political opponent of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgy Chanturia, who immediately vowed to continue his struggle against what he described as dictatorship in the independent republic.

"We intend to continue our fight for democracy," Chanturia told Reuters in an interview at a secret location in the capital of Tbilisi.

The National Democratic Party leader explained how almost four months in prison ended with a dramatic rescue in the heat of the worst fighting since rebels laid siege to the Georgian Parliament last weekend.

"Eight political prisoners were freed by the rebel forces. They burst into the (former) KGB building and began firing," Chanturia said.

The building, no longer occupied by the disbanded Soviet KGB, had been under the control of Gamsakhurdia's security services.

It is sandwiched in the battle zone between Parliament and opposition headquarters across the capital's main street, Rustaveli Avenue.

After the battle, which raged throughout the night, Health Ministry officials said four more people had been killed, raising the death toll since Sunday to 46. About 300 have been wounded so far, they said.

Chanturia's cellmate, Georgy Khaindrava, also a leading opposition figure, said the rescue was carried out by about 20 men and had been carefully planned.

"The roof began to burn. It is right next to the school, which has been ablaze for the past three days," Khaindrava said.

Chanturia, who said he had gone on hunger strikes six times while in prison, called for a peaceful settlement to this latest Transcaucasian conflict.

"It is a very cruel and senseless war," he said, blaming it on Gamsakhurdia.

Gamsakhurdia, inside the Parliament with hundreds of well-armed supporters, rejects opposition charges that he is a dictator and says all human rights are respected in Georgia.

Chanturia described the recent attempt to overthrow the president as "a democratic coup" but said he regrets the use of force.

"The people had to resort to this because there was no other way," he added.

Speaking in a smoke-filled basement crowded with about 20 supporters, he said the violence must stop. The last few days had been terrible with shells raining down around the prison near the Parliament, he said.

Huge palls of smoke hung over the city center as dawn broke Friday and fires blazed throughout the day.

"We will do everything to finish this as soon as possible," Chanturia said.

"It is important to arrest him (Gamsakhurdia) and bring him to justice," he said, wagging his finger forcefully.

Gamsakhurdia has refused to surrender or meet opposition demands for his resignation.

It was not clear who had the upper hand in the conflict, but rebel militiamen controlled much of the area around the Parliament and were trying to enforce a blockade.

"We should localize this conflict so it does not engulf the whole of Georgia," Chanturia said. "The main thing is that the West understands that it is not a putsch ."

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