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Gunmen Fire on Pro-Gamsakhurdia Rally; 2 Killed, 25 Injured

January 3, 1992

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ Opposition gunmen hurled smoke bombs and then opened fire Friday on demonstrators chanting the name of besieged President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, killing at least two people and wounding 25 others.

Panic and hysteria reigned amid the smoke and flying bullets, and many at the rally of about 3,000 people dived for cover behind cars and kiosks.

″Bandits 3/8″ shouted one of the demonstrators.

The shootings came a day after opposition leaders announced they had formed a military council to take power from Gamsakhurdia, and banned rallies in the capital. A power struggle has raged in the capital of the former Soviet republic for 13 days. At least 73 people have died and 400 others have been injured.

For the entire two-week period, Gamsakhurdia has been holed up in the Georgian Parliament building, protected by loyal government troops.

On Friday, Gamsakhurdia was still refusing the opposition’s demands to resign, Radio Russia reported. He appealed for civil disobedience and a general strike.

Opposition leaders said their supporters put down the pro-Gamsakhurdia demonstration because it was illegal under their decrees, and that they would take steps again if there were more protests.

But the bloodshed could discredit the opposition, which has been widely supported by intellectuals and human rights advocates.

Gamsakhurdia was overwhelmingly elected president in a popular election in May. He enjoys wide support in the countryside, but the opposition says he has become a dictator.

Friday’s rally began in a large square next to the Didube railway station several miles outside the center of Tbilisi.

″Zviad 3/8 Zviad 3/8″ chanted the mostly middle-aged crowd. Many carried portraits of the president.

After about 15 minutes, several cars pulled up and about 15 gunmen - some of them masked - got out. They fired automatic weapons into the air for about three minutes to try to disperse the crowd, then hurled smoke bombs at the demonstrators.

When some of the Gamsakhurdia supporters began running toward the gunmen with rocks, they fired into the crowd.

″Sakartvelo 3/8″ some protesters shouted defiantly, using the name of Georgia in their native tongue.

Hysterical screams filled the square. One man lay dead with a gunshot wound to the head and the ground around him stained red. Several loaves of ″lavash″ - soft Georgian bread - and a bag of vegetables were spilled in another large pool of blood.

″Look at the democrats 3/8″ one protester yelled scornfully.

The gunmen fled, but at least two were captured by the crowd and severely beaten. Many of the demonstrators regrouped at a nearby stadium.

Independent witnesses said they saw three cars carrying opposition forces arrive at the rally before the shooting started. Other witnesses said they recognized the gunmen as opposition members.

The Georgian Health Ministry said two people were killed and 25 were wounded. Two of the injured were not expected to live.

Dzhaba Ioseliani, a member of the opposition’s military council, defended the crackdown.

″Yesterday, we declared that demonstrations were banned,″ said Ioseliani, a playwright who was released from jail last week and commands a paramilitary force of about 600 men known as the Mhedrioni, or Horsemen.

″This is normal and we will continue to disperse them,″ he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

″I don’t know exactly what happened,″ he said, but then alleged that pro- Gamsakhurdia forces provoked the incident.

On Thursday, the opposition council declared a state of emergency in Tbilisi as well as an 11 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew.

On Friday, it issued decrees firing most of Gamsakhurdia’s Cabinet. Gamsakhurdia, in turn, ordered all government officials and Georgian businesses to resist the council and obey ″the constitution, the laws of the republic and its lawfully elected president and government,″ Tass said.

The fighting between Gamsakhurdia’s forces and opposition troops began Dec. 22 after weeks of increasing tension. It has left Georgia virtually leaderless. Neither side has won enough supporters to overpower the other, and it is unknown whether the country will support the military council.

Georgia is the only one of the 12 former Soviet republics not to join the new Commonwealth of Independent States led by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Commonwealth leaders want Georgia to end its civil war first.

Update hourly