The Black Sea coast city of Sukhumi fell to Abkhazian rebels Monday after 12 days of fierce fighting, and Georgian leader Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who had vowed to defend the city “with my bare hands,” was said by aides to be hiding in a safe place.
As Abkhazian rebels raised their flag over city hall and thousands of refugees streamed out of the smoking, starving city, Georgian officials said Shevardnadze might have to be spirited out of Sukhumi by boat. But the Abkhazians offered Shevardnadze safe passage out.
“We don’t want his life,” Abkhazian spokeswoman Aida Ladariya said. “We shall do nothing to keep him here.”
She said Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who helped end the Cold War, had staked everything on holding Sukhumi, a city of tangerine groves and stunning beaches that was once considered the Soviet Union’s most beautiful resort.
“He succeeded in deceiving the entire world that he is a kind democrat,” Ladariya said. “But now everyone can plainly see that he is a butcher of his own people.”
The fall of Sukhumi is tantamount to the loss of Abkhazia, because rebels already control much of the rest of the breakaway province. To the south lies the stronghold of another Shevardnadze foe, ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, whose forces are also waging war against the Georgian government in Tbilisi.
“It is a national humiliation and a national tragedy,” said Vasha Adamiya, a Georgian Parliament leader.
Shevardnadze released a poignant statement blaming both Russia and treason within Georgia for the dreadful defeat. He said the invaders had killed hundreds of people, burned residential neighborhoods and were now “exterminating” ethnic Georgians who had not fled Sukhumi.
“Georgia could have been saved even yesterday,” Shevardnadze wrote. “Only Russia could have done it, and we asked Moscow to do it.
“Georgia has been practically brought to its knees,” his statement said. “But even this was not enough.”
At least 3,000 people have been killed on both sides in the civil war that began when the Abkhazians, a tiny ethnic group long repressed, restored their 1925 constitution and declared independence from Georgia in July, 1992.
The 97,000 Abkhazians speak their own language and are a minority in a province of 500,000. Outnumbered, they have been receiving help from the Russians. While Russia claims to be neutral in the conflict, it has made no secret of its intention to hold on to Black Sea bases that the Abkhazians would let Moscow keep but that the Georgian government wants to reclaim.
After a July 27 cease-fire, both Georgian and Abkhazian forces were to have withdrawn from the combat zone and disarmed. But 12 days ago, as Georgia’s political situation slid from chaotic to catastrophic, the Abkhazians seized the moment to launch a major attack on Sukhumi, their capital city.
Russia denounced the attack and said it was cutting off energy supplies to Abkhazia. But the rebels persisted, shooting down three aircraft in as many days.
Georgian officials bitterly charge that Russia encouraged them to disarm but then failed to act decisively when Abkhazia violated the cease-fire, leaving the Georgians helpless to defend themselves.
“We have been double-crossed by the Russian government and by Boris Yeltsin personally,” one Georgian Defense Ministry official said Monday.
Shevardnadze said he had even promised Russia that Georgia would join the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Russian-dominated economic and military union that has grown more powerful of late. The proud and independent Georgian people--and their Parliament--have been vociferously opposed to Commonwealth membership.
“God knows, I did everything I could to prevent this terrible day from coming,” Shevardnadze wrote. “But I could not. May my contemporaries and my descendants forgive me.”
According to some reports from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, only 20,000 civilians still remained in Sukhumi. Unconfirmed reports reaching Moscow said that up to 120,000 refugees had fled toward western Georgia and that many had gone to an area around the airport that is subject to shelling and from which there is no safe exit.
Meanwhile, 7,500 refugees, mostly elderly people, women and children, were evacuated from Sukhumi aboard Russian naval ships, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported.
The Georgian Parliament immediately demanded Shevardnadze’s return, but there were conflicting reports about his whereabouts early today. Itar-Tass reported that Shevardnadze was at his headquarters on the outskirts of Sukhumi working on evacuating refugees. The British news agency Reuters said he had moved to another safe location near the resort of Gulripshi, about eight miles south of the city.
Shevardnadze was said to have categorically refused to leave aboard a Russian ship, but Georgian officials said they could arrange evacuation.
When he does return home, Shevardnadze will face a mixed welcome. Before leaving, he forced Parliament to give him emergency power to put down the Gamsakhurdia revolt and the gangs of bandits and extortionists that have been terrorizing Georgians and making a shambles of the economy.
But some of his own blame him for provoking the Abkhazians to war, then losing.
“Shevardnadze’s days in office are numbered after this crushing defeat,” said Georgian lawmaker Adamiya.
Sergei Loiko of the Times’ Moscow bureau contributed to this report.