TBILISI, Georgia – Georgia has detained four men on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the president, and authorities on Friday accused the autonomous province of Adzharia (search) of being behind the alleged plot. The Adzharian leader rejected the accusation.
Deputy state security minister Gigi Ugulava (search) said the arrests were made over nine days beginning March 23 and that two other suspects are at large and believed to be in the Adzharian capital, Batumi.
Ugulava said the men were working under the direction of Adzharian security minister Soso Gogitidze, his deputy Gogi Kupreishvili and other provincial officials.
"This fact has been confirmed in detail," he told journalists. It was not clear if Georgian authorities would attempt to arrest the Adzharian officials, a move that could sharply aggravate the dispute between Adzharia and the central government.
Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze (search) and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (search) are intense foes, and tensions between Adzharia and Tbilisi have soared over the past month as Saakashvili pushes to bring the province back under central government control.
Abashidze has alleged that Saakashvili is planning to take control of Adzharia by force. The province's border guards last month blocked Saakashvili from entering the region, which the Georgian president says Abashidze runs as a fiefdom, withholding taxes from the central government,
After being blocked from Adzharia, Saakashvili imposed economic sanctions, which were lifted after Abashidze agreed to concessions including backing off repression of opposition groups and allowing free parliamentary elections.
However, there were extensive complaints of violations in Adzharia in Sunday's election, and Georgia's elections commission on Friday annulled the results from two of the province's six districts, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
Abashidze rejected allegations of an Adzharian-led assassination plot.
"The absurdity of these statements is completely obvious, and it is not the first time we have heard such things from Tbilisi," he was quoted as telling the Interfax news agency.
The soaring tensions over Adzharia have raised fears that Georgia is on the verge of a conflict like the separatist wars in the 1990s in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which are now de-facto independent.
Saakashvili has said he is determined to rein in Adzharia without using force. On Friday he said that "we are ready to begin working with the Adzharian authorities on defining the functions of the central and regional authorities," according to Interfax.
A day earlier, he announced that Georgian military units, including some stationed in Adzharia, would conduct an exercise practicing evacuation of a large civilian area. The exercise is to take place this month in Poti, about 20 miles north of Adzharia.