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Third Plane Hit in Three Days in Georgia

September 23, 1993 GMT

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ Anti-aircraft fire from Abkhazian rebels hit a passenger plane at Sukhumi airport today, the third plane destroyed in as many days, officials said.

The number of casualties, if any, wasn’t immediately known.

The plane was evacuating civilians from the besieged city, where up to 250 people have been killed in the past week in fighting between government defenders and Abkhazian separatist rebels.

Rezo Egadze, chief spokesman for Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, said on national television that the Tu-134 plane was hit this morning by anti- aircraft fire while on the airport runway. He earlier reported the plane was shot while attempting to take off on a flight to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

He said the plane was carrying mainly refugees. He did not say how many passengers it was carrying.

On Wednesday, a plane landing in Sukhumi was hit by rebel fire and exploded, killing at least 60 people. On Tuesday, 28 died when a Tu-134 was hit by Abkhazian fire and crashed into the Black Sea.

Sukhumi is the last government stronghold in Abkhazia. More than 3,000 people have been killed since the region’s nationalist leaders declared sovereignty a year ago.

Fighting raged south of Sukhumi, where a private militia allied with Shevardnadze was trying to break through separatists’ stranglehold around the city.

A commander of the U.N. mission in Georgia, Brig. Gen. John Hvidegaard of Denmark, said by telephone from Sukhumi that up to 250 Georgians were killed inside and out of the city in the last week of renewed fighting.

Members of the French-based aid organization, Doctors Without Borders, reported 95 civilians killed and 1,121 wounded as of today, said Dr. Henrik Freixa in Tbilisi.

″There are many more dead and wounded in the streets and houses,″ said Freixa, who has been in constant radio contact with doctors in Sukhumi. Sporadic shooting has prevented officials from collecting the bodies.

Only one of the city’s five hospitals was still working today, and it was suffering water shortages, he said.

The clashes were preventing authorities from clarifying the casualty toll from the downing Wednesday of the Georgian Tu-154 jetliner reportedly carrying food, medicine and more than 100 Georgian soldiers from Tbilisi.

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That plane crashed short of the airport, about 7 miles south of Sukhumi, after being hit by two heat-seeking missiles fired from an Abkhazian gunboat in the Black Sea, said Tsiuri Badgelidze, Shevardnadze’s spokeswoman.

The plane crashed a day after Abkhazian forces shot down a Georgian Tu-134 flying to Sukhumi from the southern Russian city of Sochi, killing 28 Russian and Georgian civilians.

Abkhazian forces denied shooting down the first plane.

Shevardnadze, wearing camouflage fatigues, remained in a fortified building in Sukhumi today. He told Russia’s ambassador in Georgia he wanted to fly to Moscow to support President Boris Yeltsin in his fight with hard-line lawmakers.

But it was unsafe for him to fly from Sukhumi, the ambassador said, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Georgia claimed in July that separatists had obtained the missiles and other advanced weaponry from Russian military supporters, whom Shevardnadze says are supported by hard-liners in the Russian parliament.

Russia has denied backing the separatists and has attempted to broker a peace accord between the two sides.

Russia was dispatching a vessel from its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol to the port of Sukhumi to help evacuate refugees and wounded, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.