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Georgia's PM found dead in gas leak tragedy
(China Daily)
Updated: 2005-02-04 02:13

TBILISI: The prime minister of Georgia was found dead yesterday in a bizarre gas poisoning that robs President Mikhail Saakashvili of a steadying hand to help run his country.

Zurab Zhvania
Zurab Zhvania's bodyguards found the 41-year-old slumped in an armchair near a gas heater at a friend's apartment, said Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili. "This is a tragic accident... It was a gas poisoning," he said.

Saakashvili called ministers to an emergency meeting to discuss the death of one of the nation's few political heavyweights.

Vice-Premier Georgy Baramidze, a close ally of Zhvania's, was likely to chair cabinet meetings until a new prime minister is named. But he is not thought to be in the frame for the job and there is no obvious successor.

"(Zhvania's death) is a huge blow for our country and personally for me as a president and as a person," a red-eyed Saakashvili told his ministers, many of them dressed in black, his own voice breaking with emotion.

"I have lost my closest friend, my most loyal adviser, my biggest ally."

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences, the Kremlin press service said.

Zhvania's body was found at 4:30 am when his guards, worried that he was not answering his mobile phone, broke down the door of the friend's apartment, said Merabishvili. The friend, a middle-ranking official, also died.

A police forensic expert said an initial examination of Zhvania's body revealed no evidence of foul play. Results of a blood test were due later yesterday.

Gas poisoning is not rare in Georgia, mainly caused by heaters that run off gas canisters that people use in winter, when power supplies are erratic.

The state of about 5 million lies in the Caucasus mountains, on the transit route for oil and gas exports from the Caspian Sea to the West, and is racked by simmering conflicts over the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Zhvania was widely seen as a moderating influence on Saakashvili, a 37-year-old US-trained lawyer.

"(Zhvania) was a very important figure in the leadership who was helping the government to work as a team," said a close aide.

A former speaker of parliament, Zhvania was long seen as Shevardnadze's chosen successor, but instead opted to join Saakashvili in opposition.

(China Daily 02/04/2005 page1)

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