ZUGDIDI, GEORGIA, JAN. 28 -- Government forces reportedly entered two of the three strongholds of armed supporters of ousted president Zviad Gamsakhurdia in western Georgia today, dealing a major setback to his bid to regain power by civil war.
About 250 heavily armed national guardsmen drove a column of two T-54 tanks, a rocket launcher and an assortment of civilian vehicles into this city and toasted their almost bloodless victory with champagne.
About 30 miles to the southwest, armored vehicles commanded by Jaba Ioseliani, one of the leaders of the ruling Military Council that overthrew Gamsakhurdia earlier this month, also rumbled into the Black Sea town of Poti, meeting no resistance, Reuter news service reported.
Here, government troops sprayed automatic weapons fire and light cannon rounds down the main street during their approach but encountered no resistance upon entering the city. The Gamsakhurdia forces, armed only with shotguns and sticks of dynamite, already had vanished from town.
The loyalists' prize armament -- an armored dump truck that was a sort of mobile bunker with sniper holes bored through the sides -- had been seized by government forces last week, and turned on its former owners.
The dump truck was returned to Zugdidi today, as part of the column of victorious government troops. Dented and scorched by a few bazooka rounds, the dump truck symbolized the seemingly anti-climactic end of the resistance here that tended to be more bravura than bloody.
"This is not the time for us," said one loyalist fighter before he fled the approach of the government forces. "We have no weapons and cannot fight them during the day, but the partisan war will start tonight."
Earlier, civil war had been the talk of the town. Even the local bishop, Metropolitan David, had boasted that "if I were a civilian, perhaps I would take up a gun myself to defend the president. It would be difficult for me to tell another priest who did so that he had sinned."
The last remaining pocket of forces loyal to Gamsakhurdia, who had hoped to ignite a civil war that would bring him back to power, appears to be the port of Sukhumi, about 60 miles northwest of Zugdidi. Before today, loyalist forces could claim only partial control of a small triangle of western Georgia formed by Sukhumi, Zugdidi and Poti.
"Poti was the most difficult part of our job, but the war is not finished yet," Ioseliani told Reuter as he rested at his temporary headquarters set up in the Poti yacht club. "I'm very tired," he said. "It was a hard battle." He predicted that fighting could last "maybe two weeks or two months."
Reuter quoted the head of Poti's hospital and local officials as saying six people were killed and at least 20 others injured in fighting Monday around a bridge north of town. The Russian news service Interfax, citing reports from the ruling Military Council and the Georgian Interior Ministry, described the situation in west Georgia as still "very unstable."
Here in Zugdidi, Georgi Karkarshvili, commander of the government forces, said one of his men and six backers of Gamsakhurdia were killed in skirmishes today.
Karkarshvili said his orders only pertained to dealing with armed resistance and that the pro-Gamsakhurdia population here could continue to hold meetings in the town square as long as there are no "provocations."
A government armored personnel carrier tried to break up a pro-Gamsakhurdia demonstration in the main square, firing rounds into the air, but the crowd refused to disperse and is maintaining a vigil there. One person was reportedly wounded in the incident.
The whereabouts of Gamsakhurdhia remained unknown. He has not been seen since he returned to west Georgia from neighboring Armenia two weeks ago. Georgia's first democratically elected president had fled to Armenia Jan. 5 after he was overthrown at the end of a prolonged siege of the national parliament building, where he hid in a bunker. His opponents had accused him of becoming a dictator.
But Gamsakhurdia's absence from view did not concern his supporters here. "The president is everywhere," said one. "Gamsakurdhia has become an idea. He is everywhere we are."
He is also on videotape, shown by loyalist leaders in Sukhumi to this correspondent Saturday. In the 10-minute video, Gamsakurdhia exhorted his followers to continue the cause "without compromise or contact with the criminal junta."
Gamsakurdhia was dressed in a double-breasted suit and seated behind a low wooden table in a room with yellow wallpaper. He calmly explained that he had fled the national parliament in Tblisi to prevent "a bloodbath," and likened his overthrow to 1921 -- when the Soviet army snuffed out the independent state of Georgia that existed briefly in the wake of World War I.
He also attributed his ouster to his refusal to join the Commonwealth of Independent States and urged his supporters not to despair. Fighting for independence, he said, was Georgia's "fate."
One of the loyalist leaders in Sukhumi, Gocha Bachia, said the tape was made Jan. 22, although nothing in the video specifically supported this claim. Comments by Gamsakhurdia on the referendum in the troubled province of South Ossetia held on Jan. 19 suggested, however, that the tape was made after that date.