Georgian officials reported panic in the streets of Sukhumi on Saturday as Abkhazian rebels reached the city center. Russian military boats began evacuating refugees from the besieged Black Sea city.
Georgian leader Eduard A. Shevardnadze was moving clandestinely about Sukhumi to avoid capture and boost troop morale, said his spokesman, Vata Djordjikia.
Djordjikia, speaking in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, said fighting was raging throughout Sukhumi and that many people--including some troops--were panicking.
"This is the most serious (situation) yet," he said.
Abkhazian nationalists have been fighting for the region's independence from Georgia for 13 months, and 10 days ago began an offensive on Sukhumi, the regional capital. The Abkhazians said Georgia had not abided by a cease-fire agreement.
Sukhumi is Georgia's last stronghold in Abkhazia, and Shevardnadze said earlier in the day that Georgian troops had fought back the Abkhazians in many areas. He said reinforcements were expected soon.
The Russians sent two boats--backed by gunboats and air support--at Georgia's request to pick up Georgian and Russian refugees. The boats docked in the small port of Gulripsh between Sukhumi and its airport.
Residents have been trapped since the airport, Sukhumi's only link with the rest of Georgia, closed Thursday after 126 people were killed in Abkhazian missile attacks on three planes.
The Russians said about 1,000 people could be evacuated on the boats; Georgia said 1,600 were expecting to go.
More than 100 civilians have been killed and more than 1,200 wounded in the 10-day Abkhazian offensive.
The United States on Saturday condemned the offensive and reiterated support for Shevardnadze.
Meanwhile, political rival Zviad Gamsakhurdia called on Shevardnadze to resign a day after returning to Georgia for the first time since he was ousted as president in a popular but bloody coup in January, 1992.
Speaking to reporters in Tbilisi, Irakli Gotsiridze, editor of the pro-Gamsakhurdia newspaper Iberia Spektr, warned that Georgia is now split in two.
"History will show that the most important historical moment for Georgia is not what is happening in Sukhumi but the return of the legitimate president: Gamsakhurdia," Gotsiridze said.
Gamsakhurdia intends to set up a government in his regional stronghold of Mingrelia, in western Georgia south of Abkhazia. According to Gotsiridze, Gamsakhurdia will govern Mingrelia as a separate state until he can wrest control of Georgia.