Georgian (COUNTRY) PM dies in gas leak accident
The prime minister of Georgia, Zurab Zhvania, was found dead in an apartment in Tbilisi early yesterday, apparently poisoned by carbon monoxide from a faulty gas heater.
Officials said a preliminary examination of Mr Zhvania's body and that of a friend, Raul Usupov, the deputy governor of the Kvemo-Kartli region who was also found in the apartment, showed no signs of a violent death.
"Preliminary information indicates there was a leakage of household gas from an Iranian-made heater installed in the apartment," Vano Merabishvili, the interior minister, told Interfax news agency.
David Morchiladze, head of the city gas supplier Tbilgaz, said high levels of carbon monoxide were found in the flat.
Mr Zhvania, 41, played an important role in the "rose revolution" in November 2003 that ousted the former Soviet stalwart Eduard Shevardnadze as president and led to the pro-American presidency of Mikhail Saakashvili.
The premier was considered by some as a moderate within the administration, spearheading a crackdown on crime and corruption, and negotiating settlements with two of the republic's breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A former parliamentary speaker, he is survived by a wife and three children.
President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences from Moscow, saying Mr Zhvania supported "friendly, good-neighbourly relations" between Russians and Georgians.
Mr Saakashvili said: "Georgia has lost a great patriot, who devoted his entire life to serving the motherland. Zurab's death is a great blow to Georgia and to me personally."
He urged the country to continue normal political life despite the "traumatic" loss. He dismissed Mr Zhvania's cabinet, saying he would adopt the prime minister's powers. A presidential spokeswoman said this happened "automatically" under the constitution and would last for seven days until a successor and new cabinet had been appointed.
She added: "For the prime minister [to die this way] I know looks a bit strange ... but this is not the first time in Georgia that someone has died from a gas leak."
She said a criminal investigation and autopsy were under way as a matter of routine, but that biochemical analysis had already indicated carbon monoxide poisoning.
The prosecutor general, Zurab Adeishvili, said the American FBI would also test Mr Zhvania's blood. More than 40 such accidents have been reported in the former Soviet republic in the past two years.
One of Mr Zhvania's bodyguards - speaking on condition of anonymity in a telephone interview with the Guardian - said Mr Zhvania and Mr Usupov met occasionally as friends or to discuss business. "Security are not in the room during such discussions and we waited on the street," he said.
After two hours yesterday morning, bodyguards became concerned as "there was no answer to our phone calls". He said they broke into the ground floor flat. "But it was already too late. [Mr Zhvania] sat in an armchair in the lounge, and Mr Usupov was in the kitchen."
Despite the evidence of a tragic accident, the death fuelled suspicions, especially in relation to the republic's restless provinces.
One Georgian MP said Russia was behind the poisoning. His remarks prompted Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to tell Interfax: "Let us leave politically motivated conclusions on the conscience of those making them."
One official in the South Ossetian administration told Interfax that Mr Zhvania's successor could be a hardliner favouring military solutions to regional disputes.