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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gamsakhurdia Divisive, Even in Death

TBILISI, Georgia -- In death, the deposed Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia is stirring as many political passions and intrigues as in life.

On Tuesday, military authorities in the Georgian capital said that they had released 18 Gamsakhurdia supporters arrested Monday for staging a hunger strike outside the Georgian parliament.

The "Zviadists" were protesting at the Georgian government's insistence that an autopsy be carried on Gamsakhurdia's body in Tbilisi, against the wishes of the former president's wife.

Gamsakhurdia, who last September led an unsuccessful month-long insurrection against his successor, Eduard Shevardnadze, is thought to have died on New Year's Eve at a mountain hideaway in his native western Georgia.

But the circumstances surrounding his demise, which was initially reported by his wife, Manana, remain unclear and no official has yet seen the corpse.

The body is believed to be buried near Gamsakhurdia's western strong-hold of Zugdidi, in a village controlled by his heavily armed supporters. Shevardnadze has ruled out the use of force to retrieve the body, saying he did not want "to provoke clashes."

"There should be an autopsy to identify the body, but I don't know what we're going to do," said the head of the Georgian investigation team, Anzor Baluashvili, on Tuesday. "The more we try to talk to Gamsakhurdia's family, the less we get from them."

Manana Gamsakhurdia wants the body to be taken to the rebel region of Chechenya, in southern Russia, where Gamsakhurdia and his family fled into exile after he was overthrown in January 1992. A Georgian delegation recently went to the Chechen capital, Grozny, to try to persuade Manana to come to Tbilisi for the autopsy. She refused, saying: "I will not come to Georgia until the dictator Shevardnadze resigns."

The Georgian government has invited a leading German forensic expert, Professor Wolfgang Bonte of D--sseldorf University, to perform the autopsy. Bonte, who headed the World Association of Forensic Scientists from 1990-93, arrived Jan. 15 to examine the body, but on Tuesday was preparing to leave Georgia a disappointed man, having never seen Gamsakhurdia's corpse.

It is still far from clear how exactly Gamsakhurdia died. His wife originally claimed that he had committed suicide after his hideaway was surrounded by government agents. She has subsequently withdrawn the word "suicide" from her version of events.

The Georgian government first came up with the unlikely story that Gamsakhurdia had been killed in Chechnya during an argument with his followers. Later Tbilisi announced that the former President had indeed died in western Georgia, but that he had committed suicide because he was suffering from a terminal illness that was causing him unbearable pain.

Gamsakhurdia, a prominent dissident in the Soviet period, was overwhelmingly elected Georgia's first post-Communist President in May 1991, but was overthrown after just seven months of increasingly authoritarian rule.

The former president's attempt to retake power last September ended after Shevardnadze secured the deployment of Russian troops along the railway line running through western Georgia. The Tbilisi government also received extra tanks and artillery from the Russians that were used against the "Zviadists."