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Georgian Prime Minister Dies Of Apparent Gas Poisoning

Zurab Zhvania (file photo) 3 February 2005 -- Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania was found dead early this morning in a friend's apartment in Tbilisi.

Authorities said the head of government died of apparent gas poisoning.

Georgian Interior Minister Ivane Merabishvili announced the death of Zhvania at a press conference held early today at the State Chancellery.

Merabishvili said the bodies of Zhvania and his friend -- identified as Raul Yusupov, the deputy governor of Georgia's Kvemo Kartli province -- were found by state security officers in the middle of the night.

"According to our information, Mr. Zhvania arrived at his friend's apartment at about midnight. His security team waited outside for a long time. Since the prime minister was not answering either their telephone calls or the doorbell, at around 4:00 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. they broke a window and discovered the bodies of Mr. Zhvania and his friend in the apartment," Merabishvili said.

Merabishvili said an investigation was underway to determine the exact circumstances of the deaths. But he appeared to rule out foul play, saying authorities were treating the case as an accident.

"This is a tragic accident. I went to the scene personally. We can say this was probably a gas poisoning accident. An Iranian-made gas heater was installed in that room. The deaths must have occurred instantly. Mr. Zhvania was sitting in an armchair and the body of his friend was lying in the kitchen. A table was laid with food and drinks and a backgammon board was open," Merabishvili said.

The head of Tbilgazi, the company that supervises gas supplies to the Georgian capital, told reporters that his specialists found no gas leakage in Yusupov's flat.

Davit Morchiladze also said the gas heater had been installed just two days ago but suggested that there may have been a concentration of gas nonetheless, as the apartment had apparently not been properly ventilated.

'A Great Patriot'

Early today, President Mikheil Saakashvili chaired an emergency cabinet meeting. Ministers observed a minute of silence in Zhvania's memory.

Saakashvili said Zhvania's death was a serious blow to Georgia.

"With Zurab Zhvania, Georgia has lost a great patriot who had dedicated his entire life to serve his country. Zurab's death is a hard blow to Georgia and to me personally. I lost my closest friend, who was also my most trusted adviser and ally," Saakashvili said.

Zhvania was born on 9 December 1963. A biologist by training, he founded the first-ever Green movement in Soviet Georgia in the late 1980s.

In 1993, he became the head of Georgia's Union of Citizens, the party that served as a power base for then-President Eduard Shevardnadze.

In 1995, he was elected speaker of the Georgian Parliament.

He left that post in late 2001 to protest Shevardnadze's policy and subsequently founded his own opposition party.

In the run-up to the 2003 legislative elections that paved the way for Shevardnadze's ouster, he joined forces with Nino Burjanadze, who had succeeded him at the head of the parliament.

Following Shevardnadze's resignation, he became the number-two man in the new Georgian leadership and eventually took over the newly created post of prime minister.

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