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Georgian defence minister pledges loyalty to new team

Tbilisi, Nov. 29 (Reuters): Georgia’s defence minister said for the first time today that he was working with the country’s new leaders and saw no role for the army in settling internal political disputes.

“The armed forces are a means of foreign policy and not a means of settling domestic scores,” said David Tevzadze, who has kept a low profile since veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze resigned under pressure last weekend. In a further sign the new leadership was consolidating its grip, interim President Nino Burdzhanadze named Zurab Chiaberashvili to run the Central Elections Commission, a day after the incumbent quit over fraud-marred parliamentary polls.

“It’s very important now to show the entire world that we are capable of conducting normal, democratic elections,” said Chiaberashvili, head of the independent observer group Fair Elections. He said Burdzhanadze, who took over after Shevardnadze stepped down, would ask parliament to approve his appointment tomorrow.

Tevzadze, whose absence had sparked a whispering campaign about his loyalty to those who overthrew Shevardnadze, said he was working with the new leadership. “The (defence) minister is working in accordance to the plan which has been agreed with the acting commander-in-chief,” Tevzadze said, referring to Burdzhanadze.

Tevzadze said he had met Burdzhanadze twice in the past week.

Mikhail Saakashvili, one of the leaders of the drive to topple Shevardnadze and the strong favourite in the January 4 presidential election, said this week that elements in the armed forces were plotting something akin to a coup.

“They are wrong if they think that we will be weak and tolerant of such things,” he told a television interviewer.

Georgia’s stability is monitored closely by both the west — because of a $2.5 billion oil pipeline due to take Caspian oil across it to markets — and Russia, which fears instability could aid Chechen separatists holed up in Georgian mountains.

Tevzadze said he had toured military bases to ensure they did not get sucked into disputes between factions still loyal to Shevardnadze and their rivals.

Tevzadze said the bases were calm, but he had learnt of attempts by some ex-military personnel to whip up elements of the armed forces.

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