MOSCOW — Georgian leader Eduard A. Shevardnadze, showing the iron fist he was once known for in his native land, cracked down hard Wednesday on an attempted coup in Tbilisi with a no-nonsense counterattack that left at least two people reported dead and the rebels crushed.
Not only did Shevardnadze dispense with the occupiers of Georgia's television center on the same day they took it over, he did it by lunchtime, in time to fly off to a Black Sea resort for a meeting with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
"The game is over," Shevardnadze reassured worried Georgians massed outside his government building.
The clash raised fears of a recurrence of the bloody civil war that plagued Georgia for weeks last winter until the opposition ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
But Shevardnadze, who returned to Georgia this spring after nearly six historic years as Soviet foreign minister, appeared fully in control by Wednesday afternoon.
"Now everything is OK," he told reporters, "but it was bad."
Shevardnadze said the attempted coup by die-hard Gamsakhurdia supporters had been aimed at preventing his planned meeting with Yeltsin, at which the two leaders discussed the bloodshed in South Ossetia, an enclave of Georgia.
Ossetian separatists seeking union with North Ossetia, which is part of Russia, have been battling Georgian nationalists for months in one of the chronic ethnic wars that afflict southern regions of the former Soviet Union. Hundreds have died in Ossetia, bringing ever-louder objections from the Russian government, which is leaning increasingly toward a policy of heavy pressure right up to the brink of military intervention to stop ethnic fighting in and around the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Yeltsin and Shevardnadze signed an agreement Wednesday evening calling for a cease-fire in Ossetia and for the establishment of buffer troops on the Russian border.
"The most important thing is that no human blood should flow," Yeltsin said.
Five people were reported killed overnight in Ossetia. Exchanges of grenades, mortars and machine-gun fire also continued in Moldova, where hundreds of people have died in recent days in clashes between Moldovans and Slavs. The leaders of Russia, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine are scheduled to discuss the Moldovan fighting today in Istanbul.
Taught only too well the lessons of fratricide, the Georgian people reacted largely with fear rather than enthusiasm when Gamsakhurdia supporters took the television tower. Georgians showed no desire to return to the combat that ravaged much of their capital, Tbilisi, and left scores dead in January.
"It was naive and even absurd on the part of the putschists to expect wide popular support in Tbilisi," Georgy Chanturia, leader of the Georgian National Democratic Party, said in a telephone interview. "They got zero support. What's more, the angry crowd would have killed the detained putschists with sticks, stones and their bare hands if the national guard hadn't intervened."
According to Georgian officials, between 100 and 300 Gamsakhurdia supporters attacked a Soviet military base at dawn Wednesday morning to get weapons, then seized both the television center and the transmission tower.
According to some accounts, the rebels could not master the television equipment well enough to go on the air, but they did broadcast a radio message saying: "The legitimate government has been reinstated. The red junta is nearing its end."
Shevardnadze responded by giving the rebels two hours to give up. But his well-armed national guard, backed by helicopters, reportedly attacked without waiting for the deadline to pass.
Initial reports said 40 people were killed, but government officials later cut the death toll to two, with dozens wounded. Twenty-seven rebels were arrested, including their leader, Walter Shurgaya, head of the National Resistance Committee, who walked out of the television center with a grenade in his hand but then let himself be arrested.
Gamsakhurdia himself--who was elected independent Georgia's first president in a landslide but whose dictatorial style later alienated most of his supporters--did not participate in the coup attempt.
He is believed to be in Chechnya, a rebellious mountain enclave of Russia, still pulling some political strings among factions of his supporters in western Georgia.
Shevardnadze promised Georgians to restore order fully throughout the Caucasus Mountains country of 5.4 million and pledged that "Georgia will remain on a democratic course."