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Search for Abkhazia UN Officials

Fears are growing that a group of UN observers and charity workers may have fallen into the hands of Abkhazian separatist gunmen.
By Giorgi Topouria

Security forces from Georgia and Abkhazia have launched a concerted hunt for three Westerners and two Abkhazian nationals who failed to return from an expedition to the Kodori Gorge last Thursday.


It is thought that the missing personnel may have been taken hostage by separatist gunmen, but no ransom demands have yet been received.


The group consisted of two Danish observers with the United Nations mission to Georgia, a woman translator, a British landmine expert and his Abkhazian assistant from the Halo Trust. Their names have not so far been released.


The UN mounts regular patrols of the war-scarred region while the London-based Halo Trust is working to clear the thousands of landmines which were laid during the 18-month war.


The group drove to the gorge, 30 miles due east of Sukhumi, on Thursday afternoon. They passed the border checkpoint at Kvapchara, then continued on foot towards the village of Upper Lata. The military observers made their last radio communication with the UN headquarters at 1 pm.


The UN Mission has since mounted a series of helicopter and foot patrols in a bid to track down the missing team.


On Friday, the Georgian security services told Interfax that they still had no clues as to the group's whereabouts. Meanwhile, Abkhazia's chief prosecutor, Anri Dzhergeniya, said he had information that the personnel had been abducted near Lata but admitted no conditions had yet been put forward for their release.


The Kodori Gorge is home to the Svan minority which is hostile to the republic's de facto regime. It was here that five UN observers, a medic and an interpreter were abducted last October when the kidnappers demanded a $250,000 ransom. On this occasion, Georgian security forces freed the hostages without any money being handed over but the gunmen were never caught.


Ex-KGB general Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the Supreme Council of Abkhazia in exile, said he was certain the missing personnel had been abducted by the same terrorist gang.


He added that the gang may well be made up of international criminals who are only interested in extorting money from the authorities.


Neither the Georgian nor the Abkhazian governments claim to control the region but Tbilisi has been quick to apportion the blame, saying that the group had set out from Sukhumi and was thus the responsibility of the breakaway regime. Rustan Hajiba, the Abkhazian security minister, claims that Georgia failed to provide adequate protection.


Anzor Latsuzbaia, prosecutor general for the Abkhazian government in exile, complained that the UN Observer Mission to Georgia had been unwilling to cooperate with his office, despite repeated offers of assistance.


Latsuzbaia, who was himself kidnapped in the Kodori Valley last year, says the mission has developed closer links with Sukhumi than Tbilisi - a theory supported by General Nadareishvili.


Professor Ghia Anchabadze, who was taken an active part in the peace process, dismissed the accusations of impartiality, explaining that both sides were simply competing for UN attention. He does not believe the disappearance of the UN personnel will have a negative effect on the peace talks. Negotiations have stalled because the breakaway republic demands full independence while Georgia is only prepared to offer autonomy.


The UN Observer Mission to Georgia has been active in the region since 1994 when a ceasefire was called in a bitter separatist war with Georgia. However, the 102 unarmed observers drawn from 22 countries worldwide are due to leave the province on July 31 this year.


The Halo Trust is attempting to remove up to 30,000 mines laid during the war which broke out in August 1992 when Abkhazia attempted to secede from the Georgian republic. The charity claims to have already removed 2,500 mines from border areas.


Last week's incident comes just days after the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing concern at the recent increase in terrorist attacks in Abkhazia. Sukhumi blames Georgian guerrillas for the deaths of 13 Abkhazian police officers last month.


Giorgi Topouria is IWPR's project director in Tbilisi.


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