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Poisoning Results In Death Of Georgia’s Prime Minister

By Steven Lee Myers

The New York Times -- MOSCOW

Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania of Georgia, a youthful reformer and ally of President Mikhail Saakashvili, died early Thursday in what officials described as a bizarre but accidental poisoning.

Zhvania, 41, was asphyxiated by carbon monoxide apparently released by a space heater in an apartment in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, that belonged to a political acquaintance, Raul Usupov, the officials said. Usupov, 25, a deputy governor from the Kvemo Kartli region, also died.

Zhvania’s death unsettled the country’s politicians and raised questions about Saakashvili’s efforts to push through economic and political reforms in the turbulent and impoverished country without one of his most influential and popular aides.

“Georgia has lost a great patriot,” Saakashvili said at a meeting of government ministers, according to a transcript provided by his office. He added, “I have lost my closest friend, most trusted adviser and greatest ally.”

Saakashvili later announced that he would assume the duties of prime minister as well as president, though it is unclear for how long. By law he has a week to announce a replacement.

The interior minister, Nano Merabishvili, said at a news conference that Zhvania had arrived at Usupov’s apartment around midnight on Wednesday, according to news reports from Tbilisi. Some four hours later, after he did not respond to phone calls, his guards broke into the apartment and found him slumped in a chair. Usupov was found in the kitchen. There was no indication of violence or foul play, Merabishvili said.

“It all happened suddenly,” Merabishvili said, calling the deaths a “tragic accident.”

The circumstances nonetheless gave birth to rumors and conspiracy theories, despite the official version.

A member of Parliament, Alexander Shalamberidze, insinuated that Zhvania’s death was part of a plot, orchestrated by “certain forces” in Russia, that included the bombing of a police station in the city of Gori that killed three and wounded more than 20 earlier this week. His statement prompted a pointed protest from Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.

A backgammon board was lying open on a table near an Iranian-made gas heater. Portable gas or wood-burning heaters are common in Georgia, where central heating is scarce, even in the capital. The official Russian Information Agency reported that 45 Georgians had died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the last three years.

Guram Donadze, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the heater was installed two days ago and appeared to work properly. It seemed, though, that the room lacked proper ventilation. “There are many rumors, suspicions, various versions,” Donadze said in a telephone interview. “However, what actually happened was gas poisoning -- nothing else.”

Zhvania was one of the leaders of the popular uprising in the fall of 2003 that toppled President Eduard A. Shevardnadze and swept Saakashvili to the presidency. He became prime minister barely a year ago and was a driving force in many of Saakashvili’s efforts to establish order in the country’s economy, government and foreign policy.