Separatist fight costly in western Georgia

GUDAUTA, Georgia — Besieged towns in Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazian region were clearing roads of explosives and attempting to open supply lines Friday during a lull in the hostilities.

‘Destruction is colossal,’ said Vladislav Ardzinba, leader of secessionist Abkhazia. ‘The damage is in the tens of billions of rubles. Residences have been destroyed, burned, looted. Government buildings were stripped.’

Georgia was preparing for national elections Sunday amid new pleas from Russia and the United Nations for an end to the conflict that has ripped apart the small Caucasus Mountain nation that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

But any hopes from afar that an election would solve the republic’s trouble were dismissed out of hand. ‘On our territory the elections are illegal,’ Ardzinba declared, urging Abkhazians not to vote.

Ardzinba is supposed to attend a peace-making meeting next week with Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

In an election speech Friday in the Georgia capital Tbilisi, Shevardnadze reiterated that ‘Abkhazia is an integral part of Georgia’ and warned that a solution to the conflict might require force.

‘With every passing day, the problem is more and more critical and, though I hate to say it,’ Shevardnadze said, ‘we have to be ready for everything.’

‘We would prefer to settle the problem by peaceful means,’ said Ardzinba, whose forces have been beating back Georgian troops sent to Abkhazia to rein in the separatist territory. ‘A continuation of this war would mean more victims of all nationalities.’

Ethnic Abkhazians make up only one-fifth of the half-million population in their section of northwest Georgia where they asserted their independence in August. Georgians, Russians, Armenians and others also live in Abkhazia. And the conflict has threatened to spill over into Russia.

The independence fight has been costly. Hundreds have died. Everyday life has come to a virtual standstill in Abkhazia. Schools are closed, electric service is intermittent, public transport is shut down, businesses are boarded up. Until a daytime road link to Russia opened Friday, thanks to the clearing of land mines, the only certain way in and out of Abkhazia has been by boat.

Capt. Arthur Esebua ferries refugees, a few hundred daily, from Abkhazia to Sochi just across the Georgian border in southern Russia. He aso brings out the dead and the seriously wounded. He used to carry tourists to the once-thriving coastal towns.

Before Abkhazia exploded, Georgia was struggling to recover from the protracted conflict in its northern Ossetian region and from the violent episode that ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia earlier in the year.

In less than two months, northwest Georgia’s Abkhazian region has been ravaged. Many roads remain impassable because of mines. Bridge railings have been ripped by the heavy machinery of war. Tanks sit where tractors used to. Some villages have been virtually burned to the ground.

Half the population of the Black Sea resort of Sukhumi, capital of Abkhazia, has left because Georgian troops occupy it. Abkhazian officials set up a makeshift capital up the coast in Gudauta.

Throughout Abkhazia stores are empty or closed, but farmers markets still sell food though the growing season is coming to an end, government spokesman Izida Chania said.

‘If the situation does not change, for most Abkhazians, there will be starvation in Abkhazia in the winter,’ Chania said.

Abkhazia is famous for grapes and citrus crops, but recently shipments of humanitarian aid have been feeding people in many towns. But the mining town of Tkzarcheli, the only industrial center in Abkhazia, is under blockade, stopping even humanitarian aid from getting in, officials said.

Local crops — corn, grapes, tangerines, tea — have not been gathered because the workforce is fighting, because field work has become dangerous, and because many crops have been crushed by tanks.

In the temporary Abkhazian capital Gudauta itself, roosters are still louder than machine guns, but the front is 30 minutes away and signs posted in town tell the growing number of refugees where to go.

With winter approaching, intermittent crop gathering and road clearing have become priorities during lulls in the fighting. But both Georgians and Abkhazians were reported to be massing for anticipated offenses by the other side.