KUTAISI–Georgia (Reuters)–The boom of artillery rumbled outside Georgia’s second largest city Monday as government troops clashed with an armored column of mutinous soldiers.
Tanks and artillery were in place to defend the entrance to Kutaisi after 200 soldiers opposing President Eduard Shevardnadze launched an attack in western Georgia in the early hours of the morning–seizing tanks and armored vehicles.
People fleeing the area said there were clashes in Khomi–a town about 12 miles from the Kutaisi city limits.
Details of the fighting could not be verified.
In a televised address–Shevardnadze said he might declare a state of emergency. "I do not have the right to allow chaos or anarchy," he said.
He also vowed not to let the opposition soldiers enter Kutaisi.
"It would be unjustifiably irresponsible…to allow the adventurists’ heavy artillery and armored vehicles to enter Georgia’s second largest city," he said.
Peter Mamradze–head of Shevardnadze’s cabinet–told Reuters from the capital Tbilisi he had spoken to the field commanders and that the situation was improving.
State television–reporting from near Senaki where the mutiny started–said the rebel soldiers had seized 10 tanks and two armored vehicles. Talks with the opposition soldiers broke off in the early afternoon and the opposition soldiers headed toward Kutaisi.
Officials said the opposition soldiers were led by Akaki Eliava–who commanded a revolt of nationalist supporters of Georgia’s ousted leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1992-93. Gamsakhurdia died during the rebellion in mysterious circumstances in 1993.
Eliava–who was granted amnesty after the Gamsakhurdia revolt–had served recently in the Senaki tank brigade.
A Defense Ministry spokesman’said a group of armed men also seized 15 automatic rifles from a chemical weapons battalion in the western town of Zestaphoni early on Monday. He said he believed the incidents were linked.
In a sign of how closely the country’s economic future has been linked to efforts to ensure civil peace–a major foreign oil consortium immediately announced it was suspending work renovating a pipeline that was to be finished by this year.
The consortium–which is developing oil deposits in Azerbaijan–is due to announce plans for delivering larger quantities of oil to Black Sea ports later this month. One option–backed by Tbilisi–is to build a much bigger pipeline through Georgia.
Georgian officials in the past have said civil unrest in their country was fomented by backers of rival pipelines.
Shevardnadze directly linked the latest attacks to the pipeline.
"We have been doing everything possible to solve problem with construction of the oil pipeline for five or six years–and they are trying to interfere with that," he said.