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Georgia: Abkhaz Prime Minister Survives Assassination Attempt

Prague, 1 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In Georgia's separatist republic of Abkhazia, Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab survived an overnight assassination attempt as he was traveling to the Black Sea resort of Gudauta. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Ankvab said he believes the assassination attempt was carried out by people opposed to policies of the new leadership. He also denied speculation that the attack was connected to growing disagreements among government officials.

Citing his government's efforts to curb organized crime and corruption, Ankvab told RFE/RL today that recent policies might have aroused animosity in some circles: "Forces that do not like the course taken by the new Abkhaz leadership could be behind this [assassination attempt]. Our policy aims at combating crime, strengthening discipline, and bringing order into the economy. There is an entire category of people whom this does not suit," he said.

The incident came as the opposition accuses Abkhaz president and Ankvab ally Sergei Bagapsh of violating a Russian-sponsored power-sharing agreement sealed after last year's postelection crisis that threatened to plunge the Black Sea republic into civil strife.

Abkhazia's Interior Ministry says unidentified gunmen opened fire at Ankvab's motorcade late yesterday while he was traveling to Gudauta from the Abkhaz capital Sukhum.

The incident occurred near the village of Achadara, just a few kilometers north of Sukhum.

Ankvab was traveling in the front car with his deputy, Leonid Lakerbaia. When the shooting began, the vehicle carrying the two officials sped ahead, while Ankvab's gray sedan, with just the driver inside, was riddled with bullets after being forced to stop.
"Both cars have dark windows, and maybe this is what saved Ankvab's life."

Ankvab's driver was unhurt, although police afterward counted 17 bullet holes in the car. The assailants reportedly escaped.

Inal Khashig is the editor in chief of "Chegemskaya Pravda," an independent Abkhaz newspaper. He tells our correspondent that details of the attack provided by Ankvab himself and law enforcement agencies suggest the prime minister narrowly escaped death.

"Both his car and Lakerbaia's are GAZ-3110 [Volga] sedans of the same color. Only their plates are different. Yesterday night, visibility was low in Sukhumi [because] it was pouring down in buckets. Both cars have dark windows, and maybe this is what saved Ankvab's life. He goes back to Gudauta every night. He lives there because he has no apartment in Sukhumi," Khashig says.

Abkhaz President Bagapsh today convened an emergency meeting of the Black Sea province's security forces to discuss the overnight incident.

Russian news agencies quoted Bagapsh as saying that yesterday's attack could be linked to his government's recent pledges to combat organized crime and corruption in the Black Sea secessionist province.

Abkhazia, which won de facto independence after the 1993-1994 war with Georgia, has limited contact with the outside world. Its economy relies heavily on trade with Russia and, to an even greater extent, on smuggling activities to and from other Black Sea regions.

Bagapsh, who won a presidential re-vote on 12 January with more than 90 percent of the vote, has vowed to break with the republic's 15 years under President Vladislav Ardzinba and restore law and order in Abkhazia.

Two weeks ago, on 14 February, he appointed Ankvab to run Abkhazia's new government.

The 52-year-old Ankvab is a former deputy interior minister of Soviet Georgia.

After Abkhazia seceded from Soviet Georgia in the early 1990s, he became interior minister in the first separatist government.

In 1994 he moved to Moscow, where he became a prominent businessman. Ankvab returned to Abkhazia five years ago.

Ankvab last year had announced plans to run in the 3 October presidential election. But after the Central Election Commission rejected his application, he decided to lend Bagapsh both political and financial support.

Although Bagapsh was pronounced the winner of the polls, prime minister and government candidate Raul Khajimba refused to concede defeat. The crisis that ensued brought the Black Sea province to the verge of civil strife.

Tension eased only after Russia forced Bagapsh to agree on a new vote in tandem with its protege, Khajimba, or face economic blockade.

Under the terms of a pact signed on 6 December, Bagapsh agreed to have Khajimba run for vice president with exceptional prerogatives over security and foreign-policy issues.

The pact, which was later enshrined in a law by the parliament, also stipulated that Khajimba would manage 40 percent of the state budget and have a say over who should hold key ministerial portfolios such as defense, security, and foreign affairs.

Despite these provisions, many in Khajimba's entourage criticized the deal and urged voters to boycott the repeat presidential vote.

Khajimba last week accused Bagapsh of refusing to abide by the terms of the preelection agreement.

He claimed that -- with the exception of Defense Minister Sultan Sosnaliyev and Security Minister Yuri Ashuba -- the Abkhaz president failed to consult with him on candidates to key government posts.

Bagapsh last week appointed Otar Khetsia as interior minister and has so far refused to endorse Khajimba's candidates for the posts of foreign minister and customs committee chairman.

Khashig says that although many in Abkhazia seem to approve of Bagapsh's stance, the president's attitude indeed constitutes a violation of the preelection deal:

"Formally speaking, yes, Bagapsh has violated the 6 December agreement. But there is a moral aspect to this agreement. Of all people who supported Khajimba [in the October polls], Khajimba himself is probably the only one who cast his ballot during the re-vote. Therefore, the moral aspect of the 6 December agreement is being widely discussed in Abkhazia. Many people ask whether Khajimba morally has the right to nominate ministers, all the more so when his candidates are selected from among those who called for the boycott and the cancellation of the re-vote."

But Ankvab tells RFE/RL that reports of infighting among the Abkhaz leadership are exaggerated:

"Some people are trying to give what happened [yesterday] a political undertone. This is absolutely unfounded. Within our team, there is no disagreement that could have triggered such a thing [as yesterday’s attack]. We’re conducting consultations among ourselves and we’re working normally. There is absolutely no problem in this regard. Raul Jumkovich [Khajimba] has said that he is unhappy with some [of our] decisions, but this is normal and no one here is making a tragedy out of it, including Raul Jumkovich himself."

Ankvab added that the Abkhaz government is not considering taking additional security measures as a result of Monday's incident.

"Our law enforcement agencies have certain obligations to meet. All they are expected to do is work better toward meeting these obligations," he said.