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Georgia: Gunmen Release UN Hostages

Dzhikhaskari, Georgia; 25 February 1998 (RFE/RL) - An advisor to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze says gunmen today released the remaining two UN hostages they had been holding for nearly a week in western Georgia. Gea Charkviani, Shevardnadze's foreign policy advisor, said all UN hostages were freed. A Georgian deputy, Vakha Jikea, said six local residents, also seized by the gunmen, were also released.

ITAR-TASS news agency, however, said the kidnappers are still holding one Czech UN observer hostage.

Gunmen, claiming to be supporters of the late former Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, seized four UN military observers last Thursday. One UN hostage was released on Sunday, and a second one earlier today.

The gunmen put forth a list of demands, including release of all imprisoned Gamsakhurdia supporters recently detained by Georgian officials and direct talks between their representative and Shevardnadze. The remaining UN hostages were released after talks with Shevardnadze began early this afternoon.

Reports out of the village where the gunmen were holed up with their hostages said the ringleader, Gotsha Esebua, escaped while at least three other hostage-takers surrendered. No other details on the talks between Shevardnadze and the representative of the kidnappers are available, but ITAR-TASS says the talks are still going on. The hostage-takers are associated with Gamsakhurdia, ousted in a bloody coup in 1992. Nemo Burchaladze, who was associated with Gamsakhurdia and is the group's designated representative, denies any direct tie to the gunmen. But he says he wants to participate in talks as a representative of "the legitimate authority of Georgia."

The gunmen have denied any involvement in an attempt earlier this month on Shevardnadze's life, but have demanded freedom for several people detained in connection with it. They also demand removal of all Russian troops stationed in Georgia and freedom for people they identify as political prisoners.