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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crime Turns Tbilisi into a War Zone

TBILISI, Georgia -- A column of six armored personnel carriers rumbled through the quiet neighborhood at 6 A.M., rousing sleeping residents.

They encircled a run-down apartment complex and bumped to a halt. Behind them, 60 or so officers armed with grenade launchers and Kalashnikov submachine guns poured out of a bus.

They trotted toward the entrance, forced their way into apartments and emerged with six people, suspected members of a criminal gang.

The police haul: narcotics and booty of every description from cars to jewelry, as well as an arsenal including artillery shells and heat-seeking missiles.

Crime has reached such proportions in the city of 1.3 million people that Eduard Shevardnadze has given police permission to use the sort of firepower normally deployed to fight a minor war.

"These gangs are as well armed as some small armies," said Interior Ministry spokesman Valerian Gogolashvili. "We cannot continue to fight against them with our bare hands."

This month a special force of 1,200 policemen, using tanks and other heavy arms, has swept across the mountainous state, carrying out raids against suspected bands of criminals.

Two hundred suspects have been hauled in so far. Stolen goods, drugs, and firearms have been recovered.

"Thank God," said taxi driver Nodar Gogolashvili. "Maybe now things will begin to improve. Up until now everyone has been afraid."

Georgia, where men have a love affair with guns from infancy, has been flooded with weapons since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Four ethnic and civil wars in two years, fought mostly by private militias with unsavory reputations for looting and marauding, have further worsened the situation. Many of the armed men casually strolling the city's streets look as if they belong in secondary schools.

A sign inside the $200-a-night Metechi Palace Hotel says in Georgian and English: "For the safety and comfort of our guests, please kindly deposit all firearms with security."

For those pleading illiteracy, a sketch of a pistol with a red line through it makes the point.

Economic collapse, with production falling 60 percent and the interim currency, the coupon, losing 99 percent of its value in a year, fuels a sense of hopelessness among the young, for whom crime seems the only way out.

The main boulevard, the tree-lined Rustaveli Prospekt that in the Soviet era was known for its festive late-night atmosphere, is now deserted after dark.

Few businesses are open after 6 P.M.

The night echoes with unexplained gunfire. Shafts of light from tracer bullets streak the sky, made blacker by the city's chronic power failures.

Nino Bardize remembers the time, only a few years ago, when she left the doors unlocked in her posh two-story house in the city center. "We never thought about crime," she said.

Iron security bars and a three-meter-high gate with spikes on the top have turned her house into a small fortress.

Crime figures are hard to obtain, partly because the government has no control over nearly a third of its territory.

But even incomplete Interior Ministry figures are alarming. A total of 878 murders were committed last year in parts of the country with a population of about 4.5 million. A quarter were solved.

That would be an increase of about 20 percent over 1992. Officials say the real figures are almost certainly much higher. Incidences of armed robbery and other violent crime are also up.

Much of this can be blamed on increased drug trafficking and abuse, said police and Interior Ministry officials.

Shevardnadze last week ordered government officials to submit to drug tests in a crackdown on narcotics.

"I do not want to live in a land known for murderers and bandits," he said.