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Georgia: Officials Blame Nation's 'Enemies' For Tbilisi Bomb Blast

Prague, 7 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian law-enforcement agencies have launched an investigation into yesterday's bomb attack that purportedly targeted the commander of the Russian armed forces in the Transcaucasus.

General Aleksandr Studenikin was slightly injured last night as he was walking from the Russian forces' headquarters in Tbilisi to his home near the base.

Studenikin's deputy, General Andrei Popov, said Studenikin sustained only minor injuries to his arm, leg, and face. "The life of the Russian forces' commander is not under threat. He successfully underwent surgery, and he is currently recovering at [the Russian] military hospital," Popov said.

Studenikin was reportedly hit by pieces of concrete as a remote-controlled bomb tore off the wall of a building he was walking by. The 49-year-old Studenikin has been in charge of Russian forces in the Transcaucasus since September 2003. Prior to that date, he fought in Chechnya.

This is the first time since Georgia regained its independence in 1991 that Russian troops stationed in the country have been the target of an apparent politically motivated attack. The kidnapping and murder of Russian Colonel Igor Zaitsev in 2002 has been generally linked to shady business dealings.

Russia's Georgian-based forces are garrisoned in the autonomous republic of Adjaria and in the predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Samtskhe-Djavakheti. Tbilisi has been demanding that Moscow comply with a 1999 international agreement and vacates the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases as soon as possible.

The election of Mikheil Saakashvili as Georgia's new leader in January gave new impetus to negotiations on a possible time frame for the Russian withdrawal. Georgian officials say they are optimistic an agreement can be reached soon.

The Russian Defense Ministry on 29 March said it has halved its presence in Georgia to 2,000 troops over the past few months. These figures, however, are impossible to verify.

Georgian and Russian media today are speculating on the possible motives for the purported attack against Studenikin. The most widely cited possible reasons include the tense situation in Adjaria, the ongoing Russian-Georgian cooperation against transnational crime, and the war in neighboring Chechnya.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack. However, Georgian Security Council Secretary Vano Merabishvili yesterday pointed to alleged "enemies of Georgia" opposed to a rapprochement with Russia. "This act is a provocation organized by forces who do not want the [political] situation in the country to remain stable and Russia and Georgian to normalize their relations," Merabishvili said.

Merabishvili described the blast as an "act of terrorism," although he said the perpetrators probably did not intend to kill Studenikin. "Everyone believes the aim of this act was not to kill but rather to sow fear," he said. "But that doesn't change anything. We're happy nobody was killed. But this incident in itself is very serious, and we take it very seriously."

Merabishvili said Saakashvili, who is currently on a visit to Brussels, ordered him to personally supervise the investigation.

Echoing Merabishvili's comments, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko today said the attack was aimed at disrupting the ongoing rapprochement between Tbilisi and Moscow. "This criminal act, perpetrated in the center of [Tbilisi], fills us with deep indignation," he said. "There is no doubt its aim is to undermine the development of Russian-Georgian relations. We demand that an exhaustive investigation be conducted so that the culprits are searched for and sentenced."

Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze, who is currently on a working visit to Moscow, today said the investigation has already brought "concrete results." Pointing at the situation in Adjaria, Baramidze blamed the attacks on "forces eager to destabilize the political situation in Georgia." He gave no evidence to back up his claims.

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