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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shevardnadze Pledges to Defy Terror

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt that left three people dead, blamed opponents at home and abroad Tuesday for trying to destabilize the former Soviet republic.

About 10 to 15 gunmen firing automatic rifles and grenades ambushed Shevardnadze's motorcade as the president was returning home Monday night. The president's armored Mercedes was badly damaged along with the other cars during a 10-minute shootout.

"It was a military operation, a well-planned one," Shevardnadze said on national television. "There are forces within Georgia and outside it that are seeking to destabilize the country."

The attack was the second assassination attempt against Shevardnadze in less than three years, and it underscored the volatile political climate in the Caucasus region where several conflicts still simmer.

Shevardnadze was quick to point out the global significance of the attack in a region where an international scramble is on to tap massive oil reserves in the Caspian Sea and ship them to Western markets -- using, among other routes, a critical pipeline traversing Georgia.

"The Caucasus is a strategic region of such significance for the whole world that there is no other choice for us than to strive for stability," he said.

Police, interior and army troops beefed up security around government buildings, and about 100 servicemen backed by two tanks and two armored vehicles were arrayed around Shevardnadze's residence.

Security forces checked vehicles at roadblocks and used dogs in an attempt to trail the assailants. Security at the borders also was tightened, border guard chief Major General Valery Chkheidze said.

While in Italy on Tuesday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin expressed "indignation" at the attack, presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said.

Shevardnadze said one attacker and two presidential bodyguards were killed Monday night, including the man who helped protect him during the earlier attempt on his life in 1995.

Shevardnadze said the latest attack could be the work of former Georgian security chief Igor Giorgadze, whom the president blames for the 1995 attempt. Giorgadze reportedly lives near Moscow.

In an interview with Russian NTV television Tuesday night, Shevardnadze accused Moscow of protecting Giorgadze and others wanted for the previous attempt on his life.

"The main question is: Why is Russia still sheltering terrorists? Not just Giorgadze, but three or four others who took part in that assassination attempt?" he said.

Georgia repeatedly has demanded Giorgadze's extradition, but Russian officials have said they could not locate him. Georgia's deputy prosecutor, Revaz Kipiani, on Tuesday offered to specify for Russian authorities Giorgadze's whereabouts "as well as the address of his girlfriend."

Shevardnadze also speculated that the attempt on his life could be connected to lucrative contracts for transporting oil across Georgia.

"I don't exclude the possibility of international terrorism," the president added. "An evil spirit is in the air which dreams of turning everything upside down in this country in order to bring back the era of gangs and groups."

He said it was a "miracle to have survived" two assassination attempts. "The Lord knows I spare no effort for the good of my country and the people, and he saves me in such grave situations," Shevardnadze said.

He also appealed for calm among Georgians. "We are all in place and will do what we need to do," he said. "We will not allow chaos and instability, even at the cost of our lives."

The white-haired president has led his native Georgia since 1992, shortly after it gained independence in the Soviet breakup. Internationally, he is best known as the Soviet foreign minister who helped end the Cold War under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Since independence, Georgia has been troubled by civil war, crime and a feeble economy, and Shevardnadze has made many enemies while trying to crack down on warlords and secessionists.

Russian security officials warned Shevardnadze last fall that there could be an attempt on his life, Russian Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov said Tuesday. He did not provide more detail.

On Monday night, Shevardnadze was heading home to his official residence in the southern part of the capital, Tbilisi, when gunmen hiding behind trees opened fire, police said.

Shevardnadze's armored car was riddled by bullets and hit by three grenades, said government security chief Vakhtang Kutateladze. A police car sped the president away from the scene to the safety of his residence, about a kilometer away.

The attackers escaped, aside from the one who was killed. He was identified as an ethnic Chechen living in southern Russia, police said.

Georgia's most serious problems are internal, but the country is also surrounded by lands in turmoil.

Chechnya is situated just to the northeast, and its war with Russia, fought from 1994 to 1996, was waged not far from Georgia's border. To the south, Armenia and Azerbaijan are feuding over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh.

Moreover, Georgia's conflict with its own separatist region of Abkhazia remains unresolved. The separatists control the Black Sea province and Russian troops have kept government and Abkhazian forces apart for the past several years.

On Tuesday, officials in Abkhazia and Chechnya denied involvement in the attack.

Analysts said the attack could be a bad omen for the hopes of big oil firms in the region.

"An assassination attempt on Shevardnadze definitely contributes to destabilizing the region," said analyst Ursula Beyreuther of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell in London. "He is one of the most important stabilizing factors."