Wealthy Georgian businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, accused of a coup plot against the country's president, has died suddenly in Britain, his aides said on Wednesday.
British police said that "as with all unexpected deaths, it is being treated as suspicious". A post mortem would be held later to establish the cause of death, a police spokesman said.
Georgian public television reported that the flamboyant 52- year-old businessman had died of a heart attack at his house in Leatherhead, south of London. Patarkatsishvili's allies in Tbilisi called for international experts to launch an inquiry.
"It happened at 11 o'clock (last night) at Badri's house outside London. As far as I know from his relatives, it was his heart," exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, a friend and business partner of Patarkatsishvili, told Reuters by phone from Britain.
Rati Shartava, a Tbilisi-based aide to Patarkatsishvili, blamed legal charges brought by President Mikhail Saakashvili's government against the businessman for triggering his death, Russia's Interfax agency reported.
"The state machine fought him and his heart gave in," Shartava said. Georgian government officials declined immediate comment on the businessman's death.
Patarkatsishvili, 52, a wealthy and prominent figure in his native Georgia, had been living in Britain since last year after Georgian authorities accused him of plotting a coup against the president and issued a warrant for his arrest.
"His death is a big loss for our country. I know he wanted to do a lot of good things for Georgia," former Georgian president and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze told Reuters.
Western powers have been eyeing developments in Georgia closely. The country lies on the route of a major oil pipeline in a strategic region bordering Turkey and Russia. It is at the heart of a tussle for influence between former Soviet master Moscow and new allies in the West.
In Moscow, Vladimir Kolesnikov, the deputy head of the security committee of the State Duma (parliament), said that "certain interests could stand behind Badri's death". "That is why in my country ... law enforcement agencies are not indifferent to what has caused Badri's death," he added, without elaborating.
Georgian authorities blamed Patarkatsishvili and his Imedi television station for stirring mass protests against Saakashvili on the streets of Tbilisi last November, the biggest challenge to the pro-Western president since he took power in 2003.
The protests were crushed when Saakashvili sent in riot police to fire rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators, sparking international condemnation.
Opposition leaders said the protests were triggered by anger at corruption and poverty in Georgia. Patarkatsishvili accused Saakashvili, who promoted an image abroad of a modern, pro-Western leader, of pushing his country into dictatorship.
The businessman made his fortune in Russia during the 1990s in association with Berezovsky. He ran as a candidate in Georgia's presidential election in January but did not campaign in his homeland for fear of arrest. He got 7 percent of votes.
Saakashvili won the election on the first round but the opposition accused him of cheating and refused to accept the result. Western monitors gave the poll a mixed verdict.
Following the election, a Georgian court seized Patarkatsishvili's television station and other assets, a move the businessman said was "part of the harassment by Saakashvili to destroy the opposition and enforce his falsified election".
In December, London's Sunday Times newspaper published a story about an alleged plot to murder Patarkatsishvili, quoting what it said was a taped conversation with a hitman.
The businessman responded by appealing to Georgia's government to start an immediate investigation into the matter but Tbilisi dismissed the claims as fabrication. (Reuters)
Georgia opposition leader dies suddenly in Britain