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Georgia's prime minister, a key force behind reforms, found dead

MOSCOW—Georgia's prime minister, Zurab Zhvania, was found dead in a friend's apartment early Thursday, apparently poisoned by a faulty gas heater.

The Interior Ministry termed the death an accident, but suspicions circulated that he was the victim of foul play, perhaps at the hands of opponents of his liberal economic reforms.

President Mikhail Saakashvili called an emergency Cabinet meeting, shown live on Georgian television. He called Zhvania, 41, "a great patriot ... my closest friend, most trusted adviser and greatest ally."

Zhvania's death was an unsettling development in a country that only 14 months ago saw Eduard Shevardnadze's forced resignation from the presidency.

Zhvania, a one-time Shevardnadze ally who broke with him over corruption in the government, was a key player in the so-called Rose Revolution street demonstrations, which drove Shevardnadze from office in November 2003 and led to Saakashvili's election in January 2004.

An academic specialist in Georgian politics, Vladimir Razuvayev, told Interfax news agency that Zhvania was "the main catalyst of reform" in Georgia.

"There are lots of enemies of Georgia that might have wished him dead," Vice Premier Georgy Baramidze told CNN.

Razuvayev told Interfax that Zhvania had been crucial to peace negotiations in the separatist Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a stance that angered regional mafia tycoons and certain hard-line factions in the government.

"There is no doubt that he was an impediment to the party of war, which has strong positions in the national administration," Razuvayev said.

Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said security guards had been unable to contact Zhvania for several hours Wednesday night. Around 4 a.m. Thursday, they went to the apartment in the capital, Tbilisi, where Zhvania had gone earlier.

They broke through a window to find the prime minister dead in a chair, with a backgammon board in front of him. The body of a friend, Raul Usupov, was found in the kitchen. Police said that Usupov, the deputy governor of the Kremo-Kartli region, owned the apartment, and that there were no signs of violence.

The bodies were taken to the coroner's office for autopsies, and the prosecutor-general's office opened an investigation.

Police said they found a portable gas heater in the poorly ventilated apartment. Because of dilapidated, Soviet-era heating systems and expensive and sporadic supplies of natural gas, portable kerosene and gas heaters are commonly used in Georgian homes and offices.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Zurab Zhvania

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