Fierce firefights broke out in this divided city Wednesday after a brief New Year's lull, and the commander of the opposition National Guard said an all-out assault on government headquarters is now inescapable, despite the carnage that would result.
"Storming the building has become inevitable, since obviously they are not coming out," Tengiz Kitovani, clad in a camouflage-green overcoat, announced after holding a strategy session with his subordinates.
In the basement of Georgia's besieged Parliament, President Zviad Gamsakhurdia hunkered down with 1,200 to 1,500 defenders, according to opposition estimates. In the early afternoon, his defenders began trading heavy machine-gun and automatic-weapons fire with Kitovani's soldiers, who are manning checkpoints around the building.
Twelve hours earlier, fighters from both sides shot tracer bullets, flares and star shells skyward to celebrate the beginning of 1992. A relative calm then ensued.
As the fighting resumed, leaders of anti-Gamsakhurdia political parties held emergency discussions and agreed to form a "consultative committee" to serve as the basis for a provisional government to end Georgia's long-running political crisis, said Dzhaba Ioseliani, another opposition leader.
"The only thing that Gamsakhurdia now governs is his bodyguards," said Ioseliani, a philology professor and specialist on Georgian theater who now commands a paramilitary opposition force, the Mkhedrioni, or Horsemen.
All of this Transcaucasian republic's political parties--except for Gamsakhurdia's own Round Table/Free Georgia faction--agreed to found the de facto government, Ioseliani said.
He also offered equivocal assurances that Gamsakhurdia would be fairly dealt with if he emerged from his underground redoubt to surrender. "I will do my best so that he is not killed," Ioseliani said. "But he will be put on trial."
Gamsakhurdia, a onetime human rights activist and the son of one of Georgia's most famous writers, was overwhelmingly elected his homeland's first president last May. But he rapidly aroused the hostility of many here with his highhanded leadership style and bewildering inconsistency.
Gamsakhurdia, 52, has said he is willing to talk to representatives of the swelling movement now trying to oust him. But he has flatly rejected the demand that he resign. In the full-blown rhetoric that is the hallmark of Georgia's politics, he and his opponents accuse one another of being traitors or agents of the Kremlin.
Gamsakhurdia has also sought help from leaders of other republics that had belonged to the former Soviet Union, but to no avail. Georgia has been the only one of the 12 remaining former Soviet republics not to join the newly created Commonwealth of Independent States. But when Gamsakhurdia recently expressed interest in doing so, he was spurned by Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin and the other republic presidents.
Reporters who ran the gantlet of gunfire Wednesday afternoon to get into Gamsakhurdia's cavernous headquarters were not allowed to see him. But the resolve of his defenders seemed solid, despite the siege, which was in its 11th day. Still, the jaunty confidence that many of the loyalist police and guardsmen had affected earlier seemed largely to have evaporated.
In contrast, Gamsakhurdia's foes said they believe that victory is near. "I think we will celebrate the New Year at home," said Kitovani, referring to the traditional Georgian holiday, which, by the old Orthodox religious calendar, is marked here Jan. 13-14.
An end to the carnage could only be welcomed by many Georgians, deeply saddened by the damage that already has been wrought here. Rustaveli Prospekt, which had been one of the most handsome avenues in the Soviet Union, has been mauled by the shelling and rocket fire. The columned facade of Georgia's Government House has been smashed and blackened by artillery rounds; the Hotel Tbilisi, once a graceful urban landmark, is now a smoking ruin.
Georgians, known for their fierce attachment to their capital, said the wreckage has moved them to tears. "I feel as though a part of myself has been destroyed," Zurab Potskveria, a reporter for a Tbilisi based newspaper, said sadly.
As pro- and anti-Gamsakhurdia forces engaged in some of the fiercest gun battles in days, crowds took shelter in subway entrances and the colonnades of buildings near Rustaveli Prospekt. They tried to follow the action from a safe distance, as tracer bullets made red arcs in the gray twilight.
"How long will people continue to die?" one anguished middle-aged woman cried from a group of people who had taken cover near the Georgian Academy of Sciences. "Why won't he leave office?"
Cannons boomed in deafening fashion as Kitovani's troops shelled Government House. "That's so that they can't sleep," Ioseliani said.
According to official figures, the two sides have lost at least 58 men and have suffered 340 wounded since the fighting began. But because of the disruption in communications and government services, it is likely that true casualty figures are much higher.
The hostilities have also led to the shutdown in telephone service between Tbilisi and most of the outside world, as well as the closing of the city's airport.
Many neighborhoods in this metropolis of more than 1 million people have experienced periodic blackouts. Essential services have been so badly disrupted that some bakeries were unable to bake bread Wednesday because they had not received critical supplies of natural gas.
Opposition forces say that high-ranking anti-Gamsakhurdia officials are being held hostage inside the government building to discourage a final assault; there were suggestions that they may even have been murdered, an assertion it was not immediately possible to confirm.
According to the leaders of Ioseliani's Mkhedrioni faction, Dzhumber Kopaliani of the Ilya Chavchavadze Society, Dzhemel Goletiani of the Merab Kostava Society and Nodar Goergadze, a former deputy defense minister, are among those held by Gamsakhurdia loyalists.
There were also persistent reports that Goergadze, a veteran of the 10-year Soviet war in Afghanistan who quit his ministry post to protest Gamsakhurdia's policies, had been fatally shot in captivity after taunting some of the president's bodyguards. But no confirming evidence of witnesses could be found at Government House.
Kitovani, the National Guard commander, asserted that many children ages 12 and 13 have also been detained and transformed into human shields inside Government House by Gamsakhurdia, whom he compared with the Iraqi tyrant, calling him a "Caucasian Saddam Hussein."
Ioseliani seemed to play down his fellow opposition leader's accusation by refusing to comment on it. He did say that because of poor sanitary conditions inside Government House, many of its defenders have become ill with dysentery.