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Georgia: Police Killing, Kidnappings Draw Elite Forces

Tbilisi, 18 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Unidentified gunmen shot a Georgian traffic policeman dead in Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia today, heightening tension in the region following the kidnapping of four Georgian policemen yesterday. Media reports say today's incident occurred near the village of Argvitsi, two kilometers from South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali.

The assailants, clad in uniforms and armed with automatic rifles, fired at the policeman before seizing his car and fleeing in the direction of Tskhinvali. There was no immediate explanation for the attack.

From 1989 through 1992, an armed conflict opposed Georgian government troops to Ossetian militiamen, leaving thousands dead. Ossetia officially seceded from Georgia in 1990.

Russian, Georgian, and Ossetian peacekeepers have been deployed in the region for the past 10 years.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze announced that he sent elite forces to the northern Pankisi Gorge, near the Chechen border, after four policemen were kidnapped by a gang yesterday.

Shevardnadze said the Interior Ministry forces were instructed to use all appropriate measures to ensure the return of the policemen. He said Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili has traveled to the region to direct the operation.

Police say that the men were kidnapped at two checkpoints near the village of Duisi, in apparent response to the earlier arrest of the leader of a drug-dealing gang. The police chief said the kidnappers demanded that accused drug trafficker Yury Bagakashvili be released in exchanged for the kidnapped policemen.

The Pankisi Gorge is home to more than 7,000 refugees from the neighboring Republic of Chechnya. Russia says Chechen separatists use the area as a rear base for armed operations in the Russian republic.