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Georgia: Deadly Gori Blast Sparks Confused Reactions Among Officials

A car bomb yesterday killed three policemen in the central Georgian city of Gori, just a few kilometers away from the separatist republic of South Ossetia. Although some evidence suggests the blast is criminal in nature, Georgian authorities claim the attack was prepared outside the country with a clear political aim. Some government officials are pointing to South Ossetia and its Russian protectors. Others, however, are urging a more cautious approach.

Prague, 2 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's remote car bomb partially destroyed the police headquarters of Georgia's Shida Kartli central province.

According to the latest information available, the blast killed three policemen and seriously injured more than 20 other people -- including many passers-by.

Addressing an emergency meeting of his National Security Council late yesterday, President Mikheil Saakashvili blamed unspecified "enemies of Georgia" for the attack. "We unambiguously see what happened as a politically motivated terrorist act with far-reaching objectives," he said.

Reports suggest the blast targeted Shida Kartli police chief Aleksandre Sukhitashvili. Georgian media quote regional officials as saying the car, allegedly laden with up to 100 kilograms of TNT and plastic explosives, was parked under the windows of Sukhitashvili's office.

Sukhitashvili reportedly left the building just minutes before the blast and was not injured.

Gori, which lies some 20 kilometers away from South Ossetia, has long been a hub of smuggling activities to and from the separatist republic.

Since Saakashvili officially declared war on organized crime at the beginning of his presidential term last year, he has entrusted the Shida Kartli police with the task of combating contraband in the region. Yet, reports from the area clearly show Georgian and South Ossetian smugglers continue to operate with little -- if any -- interference by regional authorities.

The choice of the Gori police headquarters as a target and the mode of operation might indicate that yesterday's blast was either a warning to law enforcement agencies, or a settling of scores between rival criminal gangs.
"It is unlikely that this terrorist act was performed by Georgian criminal gangs, or by ethnic Ossetian groups operating in [South] Ossetia." -- Interior Minister Merabishvili

Georgian Interior Minister Ivane Merabishvili, however, dismissed the criminal theories as irrelevant. "It is unlikely that this terrorist act was performed by Georgian criminal gangs, or by ethnic Ossetian groups operating in [South]
Ossetia," he said. "In all likelihood, this terrorist act was prepared beyond Georgia's borders."

Various lawmakers of Georgia's ruling National Movement-Democrats party have said they suspect the Russian-backed separatist leadership of South Ossetia of being behind the Gori blast.

In an interview with Georgia's Rustavi-2 private television station yesterday, the head of South Ossetia's Press and Information Committee, Irina Gagloyeva, flatly denied those allegations.

Addressing reporters after yesterday's National Security Council meeting, however, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili pointed at unspecified "forces" allegedly linked to South Ossetia. "These forces are probably worried by the statements and peace initiatives the president made last week," she said. "They are worried by Georgia's [newly acquired] stability and by the very positive image it has now on the international area, which found an expression in President [Saakashvili's] recent nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize."

Maia Nadiradze, who chairs the National Movement-Democrats group in Georgia's national parliament, sounded even more unequivocal. "In any event, we can say this is a reaction to [Saakashvili's] peace initiative," she said. "Who planned it? Who did it? What were the motives? All this will become clear in the course of the investigation. But my opinion is that this is a reaction to [our] peace initiative. What makes me think this, in particular, is the fact that [the attack] occurred in Gori."

Addressing the Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Saakashvili on 26 January proposed to South Ossetia that it renounce all independence claims in return for political, economic, and cultural autonomy.

As further evidence to claims that South Ossetia may be involved in the Gori attack, Zurabishvili said yesterday one of her deputies (Giorgi Gomiashvili) was due in Vienna the following day to present Saakashvili's peace plan before the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Today, however, official voices within the Georgian government began to defend the South Ossetian leaders, who last week refused Saakashvili's autonomy offer.

In sharp contrast to his generally hawkish stance on separatist issues, Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili said he did not believe Tskhinvali had any role in the blast. "I do not believe this was an answer to [our] peace initiative because this terrorist attack was planned long before the president of Georgia unveiled his initiative in Strasbourg," Okruashvili said. "My reason for saying this is that the car [that was used in the attack] changed owners and, a month ago, was registered under the name of the man who committed this attack. Those who prepared and performed this terrorist act are trying to make us search for a lead in Tskhinvali. This is an attempt at dragging us into a new conflict [with South Ossetia]."

Addressing a cabinet meeting today, Georgia's Conflict Resolution Minister and chief negotiator with South Ossetia, Giorgi Khaindrava, cautioned his colleagues against "jumping to conclusions."

In Khaindrava's words, unfounded accusations against the South Ossetian leadership will achieve no results except to "risk offending a people who have nothing to do with the Gori blast."

In response to those who allude to a possible Russian lead in the Gori blast, Khaindrava also said Russia is not the only country in the world which, in his words, "does not like the new role Georgia is playing on the international arena and the peace initiatives made by its government."