TBILISI, GEORGIA, JAN. 6 -- Worn down by a steady artillery barrage and deserted by many of his key ministers, Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia early today fled the besieged Parliament building where he had sought refuge from armed opponents, leaving behind a capital devastated by two weeks of intense street fighting.
"Power in Georgia is in our hands," said Dzhaba Ioseliani, a leading member of the self-proclaimed Military Council that overthrew Gamsakhurdia just eight months after he won a landslide election victory. "Until things calm down and until democratic institutions take root in Georgia, we will keep power."
Opposition leaders said that Gamsakhurdia, accompanied by several dozen soldiers and aides, had headed southeast out of this former Soviet republic toward neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia in a convoy of buses and armored cars. The convoy had split up as it came under fire here in Tbilisi, and several dozen soldiers as well as a number of pro-Gamsakhurdia legislators surrendered to opposition forces.
The Reuter news agency quoted Russian media as saying that Gamsakhurdia first headed for Azerbaijan but then shifted toward Armenia, where President Levon Ter-Petrossian was considering granting him political asylum. Reuter also reported that the Russian Information Agency said Armenia had agreed to give him safe passage.
Ioseliani said that wherever Gamsakhurdia ends up, he will be hunted down and brought to trial.
The flight of Gamsakhurdia from the Parliament building bunker where he had been holed up since Dec. 22 marks the culmination of a bitter struggle for power in this mountainous Black Sea republic of 5.4 million since the long-ruling communists were ousted in parliamentary elections last May. After the vote, the victorious Georgian nationalists immediately started squabbling among themselves.
Gamsakhurdia, a veteran anti-Soviet dissident and human rights activist, won 86.5 percent of the vote in concurrent presidential elections by presenting himself as the incarnation of Georgia's centuries-long quest for independence. But he was quickly accused by opposition parties of dictatorial tendencies, and he antagonized many of his own supporters with his unpredictable ways and isolationist policies.
The virtual destruction of one of the most beautiful city centers in the former Soviet Union is also a dramatic reminder of the political tensions that have risen to the surface as a result of the collapse of the communist superpower.
In the adjoining republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the relaxation of central control led to an upsurge of inter-ethnic strife. Here in Georgia, where politics have long been dominated by rival clans, the end of Kremlin rule resulted in a civil war that pitted Georgians against Georgians.
"This is God's punishment for our political sins," said filmmaker Georgi Handrava as he surveyed the smoking ruins of the Parliament building. "We are all guilty, not just Gamsakhurdia. We are reaping the fruits of our communist history, when all political activity was repressed. What has happened here is essentially the same as what happened in Romania and Albania. This is a lesson that will go down into the history of Georgia."
As civil wars go, the human casualties were relatively minor: 100 dead and about 400 wounded, according to official estimates. But the devastation in the center of Tbilisi is much more extensive than the damage wrought in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, during the December 1989 revolution against communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Virtually every building along Rustaveli Prospect, a once handsome tree-lined promenade that was the pride of Georgia, is in ruins. Some five-story palaces have been reduced to little more than blackened facades enclosing heaps of rubble.
Journalists walking along the avenue this morning three hours after Gamsakhurdia's flight were confronted with the nightmarish scene of a deserted, bombed-out city. The mile-long street was strewn with the debris of war: abandoned tanks and armored cars, burned-out trucks and buses, spent mortar rounds, glass fragments, shattered trees and tens of thousands of cartridge casings. In the center of the avenue, a burst water main spewed a fountain of water 30 feet into the air.
A tattered Georgian flag hung limp from the top of the burning Parliament building from which Gamsakhurdia fled shortly after 3 a.m. Black smoke billowed from upstairs offices as hunks of the building crashed down onto the pavement. A few looters picked their way through charred mattresses and piles of personal belongings dumped on the street outside.
Gunfire sounded in and around the building until mid-morning, as opposition troops fired celebratory shots into the air and bursts of bullets at real or imagined snipers. Bearded militiamen wearing woolen caps and a motley of different uniforms kissed each other on the cheeks. For the most part, however, there was little sense of victory among the victors, just relief that the fighting was finally over.
Less than 16 hours earlier, Gamsakhurdia had met in his bunker with about a half-dozen foreign journalists for what turned out to be his last presidential press conference. He seemed fatigued but defiant, describing the opposition Military Council as a "fascist junta" attempting to carry out a "common coup d'etat." He said he was trying to rally support from the provinces, particularly his own power base of western Georgia.
"I am the elected president. They want to overthrow me, but they cannot succeed because the people are against them. People understand their terroristic methods," Gamsakhurdia said. Asked how long he could remain in the barricaded basement, he replied enigmatically: "The future will show that. I don't know."
Shortly after the journalists left the pale-pink Parliament building, dodging sporadic sniper fire, the opposition artillery barrage intensified. Around midnight, about 60 Interior Ministry soldiers left the building, depriving Gamsakhurdia of his most professional troops. An hour later, the president told the 200 or so defenders who remained that his military council had decided to evacuate and head for western Georgia.
"Gamsakhurdia may have shown a calm face to you journalists, but conditions were very tough down in that bunker," said Georgi Chanturia, a principal opposition leader who was freed from prison by rebel forces last week. "After the rats started leaving the sinking ship and his closest colleagues left him, he understood that he could not hang on any longer."
"We deliberately left him a way out," said Ioseliani, who heads a military faction known as Mhedrioni, or Horsemen, in explaining why the opposition did not encircle the Parliament building. "This was our plan. We prepared the ground psychologically so that he would take the exit that we offered him."
Several government soldiers captured by the opposition said the president had offered his defenders a chance to accompany him and that the loyalists argued about this among themselves in the cavernous basement room that had served as their living quarters during the battle.
"Many did not want to leave. They said it was impossible. It would mean certain death," recalled Goga Tsamharadze, a captured opposition militiaman who heard the conversation from the makeshift first-aid center in a corner of the room. Tsamharadze said he had been taken to the first-aid center after being beaten unconscious by his captors.
Resigned to defeat, the defenders filed out of the bunker and crammed into waiting buses and armored cars. There was not enough room for everyone, and some had to flee on foot; others were caught in a shootout with opposition troops as they drove out of the city. Gamsakhurdia, meanwhile, instead of making for western Georgia where he might have rallied support, headed off in the opposite direction.
Deputy parliamentary leader Nemo Burzhurladze said he was trying to leave Tbilisi with a busload of 60 government troops when they ran into an opposition barricade. At least five people were killed during a 15-minute firefight, said Burzhuladze, who hid but then surrendered at dawn.
Now that they have rid themselves of Georgia's first popularly elected president, opposition leaders are promising to create a truly democratic parliamentary republic. But the potential for a split is already evident among the military chieftains who overthrew Gamsakhurdia and the intellectuals who lead the myriad political parties that make up the self-proclaimed "democratic opposition."
Effective power is now in the hands of the Military Council, which is dominated by Ioseliani and Tenghiz Kitovani, a former sculptor chosen by Gamsakhurdia to establish a national guard. Kitovani fell out with the president after Gamsakhurdia attempted to disarm the national guard during the abortive coup by communist hard-liners against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow last August.
"There will be a civilian government; Kitovani and Ioseliani will go back to their barracks," said Eldar Shengalaya, a prominent Georgian filmmaker who ran against Gamsakhurdia in the May election.
Like other opposition leaders, Shengelaya blames Gamsakhurdia for provoking the violence. He said the president had triggered armed conflict by threatening on Dec. 20 to demolish the camp housing Kitovani's national guard.
At a chaotic press conference this morning, both military leaders accepted the need for fresh parliamentary elections in the next few months, but neither seemed in much of a hurry to hand over power to civilian politicians.
Ioseliani, a former literary critic and professor of philology who has served a prison sentence for bank robbery, said the length of the transition to civilian rule would depend on "future events," including possible resistance to the new order from Gamsakhurdia supporters.
Following is a chronology of events leading up to the flight of Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, toppled by opposition forces Monday:
1976: Gamsakhurdia establishes Helsinki Group to defend human rights and Georgian culture.
1977: Members of Helsinki Groups arrested across Soviet Union, including Gamsakhurdia.
1978: Gamsakhurdia among candidates nominated for Nobel Peace Prize by Congress, which wanted to express support for those imprisoned while monitoring Helsinki accords.
1979: Gamsakhurdia released from prison, continues opposition activities.
April 9: Soviet soldiers using poison gas and shovels kill 20 nationalist demonstrators in Tbilisi. Gamsakhurdia imprisoned for 40 days and Georgian independence drive gains momentum.
Oct. 28: Gamsakhurdia's Round Table alliance wins landslide victory in parliamentary elections, ending seven decades of communist rule. 1991
April 1: Georgians vote overwhelmingly for independence in referendum.
April 9: Georgian parliament declares independence.
May 26: Gamsakhurdia elected president with 87 percent of the vote in first direct presidential election in former Soviet Union.
Aug. 18: Prime Minister Tengiz Sigua and foreign minister Georgy Khoshtaria fired after rift in Round Table alliance. Opposition accuses Gamsakhurdia of dictatorial tendencies, stifling political and press freedoms.
Sept. 2: Georgian police fire on opposition demonstration near parliament, sparking armed conflict which continues for more than a month. At least eight killed.
Sept. 17: Gamsakhurdia's main political opponent, National Democratic Party leader Georgy Chanturia, is arrested.
Sept. 23: Opposition backed up by rebel national guards take control of Tbilisi television center and other buildings in attempt to force president to step down.
Sept. 24: Gamsakhurdia puts the capital city of Tbilisi under state of emergency.
Oct. 3: Rebel national guards and opposition, divided on tactics, leave Tbilisi after two-week occupation of television center.
Dec. 21: 11 of the former Soviet republics join in Commonwealth of Independent States, with Georgia opting not to sign.
Dec. 22: Fighting breaks out around Georgian parliament. Rebel guards surround building, Gamsakhurdia takes refuge in basement.
Dec. 28: Georgian rebel and loyalist leaders agree to a cease-fire after peace talks but pro-Gamsakhurdia forces do not take part and fighting continues.
Jan. 2: The opposition says it is creating alternative government and gives Gamsakhurdia 24 hours to resign or be driven out.
Jan. 3: Masked gunmen open fire on demonstration supporting Gamsakhurdia, killing at least four and wounding 34.
Jan. 6: Gamsakhurdia flees Tbilisi.
SOURCES: The Washington Post; Reuters