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Kidnappers Linked to Goergia Attack

February 20, 1998

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ President Eduard Shevardnadze said Friday that gunmen holding four U.N. military observers hostage in the former Soviet republic were also behind a recent assassination attempt against him.

The heavily armed gunmen seized the U.N. representatives, their Georgian driver and five civilians on Thursday after shelling the U.N. headquarters in the western Georgian town of Zugdidi. Two women and a child were released Friday.

The gunmen threatened to kill the remaining hostages unless the government frees seven people arrested in connection with the Feb. 9 assassination attempt against Shevardnadze.

The seven suspects are supporters of former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was ousted in 1992 and died two years later. The kidnappers also support Gamsakhurdia.

They deny that any Gamsakhurdia supporters were involved in the attack on Shevardnadze.

``They must understand that their action against Georgia won’t bring them any good. They must understand that they can’t turn back history,″ Shevardnadze said in the capital, Tbilisi.

``The hostage-taking is the continuation of the Feb. 9 attack,″ he said. ``If that attack had succeeded, Georgia would have plunged into chaos.″

U.N. observers are in Georgia to monitor the truce between government forces and separatists in the northwestern Black Sea province of Abkhazia. The separatists took control of the province in a 1992-93 war.

The U.N. team, along with Russian forces, have helped prevent further outbreaks of fighting, but progress toward a political settlement has been slow.

The captured U.N. observers are from Uruguay, Sweden and the Czech republic.

Russia’s Public Television showed footage of the captives sitting around a table, eating and drinking homemade vodka. A guard armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle stood behind them.

``The situation is calm. There is no problem,″ said the Czech captive, identified as Jaroslav Kulisek.

Government and U.N. representatives negotiated with the kidnappers Friday and planned more talks Saturday.

The president’s spokesman, Vakhtang Abashidze, said the men would be allowed safe passage out of Georgia if they freed their captives.

In response to the tumultuous events of the past few weeks, parliament on Friday passed a law toughening the punishment for people found guilty of terrorism, the Interfax news agency reported.

The law calls for life terms in prison for convicted terrorists and up to 10 years for those who help hide terrorists.

In addition, all strategic sites in Georgia now are under guard, including a vital oil pipeline that is under construction, Abashidze said.