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Fate Unclear of Jews Remaining in Fallen Georgian City of Sukhumi

Direct contact has been lost with the small Jewish community remaining in the Georgian city of Sukhumi on the Black Sea, following its capture by Abkhazian separatists this week.

Around 200 Jews remained in Sukhumi, after five separate Jewish Agency rescue operations brought 1,000 of the war-torn city’s Jews to Israel in recent months.

Fifty were to have been evacuated last week during the Russian-brokered cease-fire, but the day the operation was scheduled, the cease-fire collapsed and the rescue was aborted.

Baruch Gur, director of the Jewish Agency department dealing with Eastern Europe, said that Jews who had managed to get out before the city was engulfed in fighting reported few or no casualties among the Jews.

But he said that Jewish casualty figures were not known with any degree of accuracy, as the areas where Jews had lived had been badly damaged in the heavy fighting.

“We only know rumors and estimates brought out by those who managed to escape,” he told Israel Radio.

Jewish Agency representatives in the Black Sea port cities have so far located 15 Jews among the 13,000 refugees gathering there.

The fall of Sukhumi, the Georgian government’s last stronghold in the Abkhazia region, marked a decisive defeat for the forces of Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, the former foreign minister of the Soviet Union, after 13 months of the civil war.

Shevardnadze, who was forced to flee Sukhumi to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi hours before the city fell, warned that the defeat could lead to the disintegration of Georgia into civil war between ethnic minorities.

Given the likelihood of continuing conflict, Gur of the Jewish Agency estimated that between 30 and 35 percent of the 16,000-strong Jewish community in Georgia is likely to come to Israel by early next year. He said he expects a majority of the Georgian Jews to have reached Israel within two years.

TRIED TO CONVINCE THEM TO LEAVE

Seventy-seven Georgian Jews were scheduled to arrive in Israel this week on a Georgian airline with the help of the authorities there, despite the shortage of planes and fuel.

Gur also said it was premature to predict the impact of Russia’s current political crisis on the immigration by Russian Jews to Israel.

Last week Natan Sharansky, head of the Zionist Forum, said the dramatic events in Russia could spur aliyah by “masses of Jews” and called on the Israeli government to be ready to absorb huge waves of new immigrants.

Gur said the resources are in place to bring to Israel the people expected to emigrate and that it is too soon to recommend to the government any change in the absorption policy based on recent events.

Speaking with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on the day following the fall of Sukhumi, Gur said he is “very bitter” about the decision by the city’s 200 Jews to remain there, despite repeated warnings over many months by Jewish Agency representatives that the situation would worsen and they would be in grave danger.

“We did our best to convince them to leave earlier, to facilitate their evacuation,” but they chose to stay behind because of their property, he said.

Gur said the Jews of Sukhumi face danger, as do the people of Kutaisi, the capital of Mengrelia, south of Abkhazia and home to 2,500 Jews.

Former Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a bitter rival of Shevardnadze, has many supporters in the Kutaisi area, which make it fertile ground for civil war, said Gur.

“Shevardnadze has difficulty controlling the country, and there is a danger of another civil war,” he said.

Gur said he expects Jews from Kutaisi to begin immigrating to Israel more steadily.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Hugh Orgel in Tel Aviv.)

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