Friday, 9 May 2008

Russian military says more Abkhazia peacekeepers possible; Georgian leader warns of war

The Associated Press Published: May 8, 2008

MOSCOW: Russia's Defense Ministry said Thursday that it could further bolster its peacekeeping forces in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, a move that would further anger Georgia and stoke fears of a new war in the strategic South Caucasus.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, meanwhile, said the threat of war with Russia remained high, and fightingnearly erupted just a few days ago.

Western-leaning Georgia and breakaway Abkhazia are at the center of struggle between Russia and the West for influence in the strategically located South Caucasus. And as Georgia pushes aggressively for NATO membership and tries to draw closer to the United States, tensions have grown dramatically in recent months.

Russian peacekeepers, which have served in Abkhazia since the region broke away from Georgian control in the 1990s, are an irritant in relations between Russia and Georgia.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a recent increase brought the number of peacekeepers in Abkhazia to 2,542 — up from 1,997. The increase was criticized by the United States and European Union.
The ministry also accused Georgia of dispatching forces to the area and said any further steps could prompt Russia to increase its forces to the maximum 3,000 peacekeepers allowed under a 1994 agreement.

"All of this is for one purpose — to keep peace and avoid bloodshed," the ministry said in a statement.

Abkhazian and Russian authorities have claimed Georgia is preparing for an offensive to take control of the region by force.

Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili rejected those claims, but he said Georgia would respond if attacked. He said Russia had already exceeded the limit on peacekeepers and additional troops would be viewed as aggressors.

"We are not going to wage a war in Abkhazia and solve this conflict by military means," he said in remarks broadcast by Georgian TV.

Saakashvili was quoted by the Interfax and RIA-Novosti news agencies as saying Russia and Georgia had been on the verge of war.

"I believe that we were very close a few days ago, I think, and this threat persists," Saakashvili was quoted as saying.

Still, "Georgia is not planning and cannot fight against Russia. We do not even have enough combat capable units," he was quoted as saying.

The United Nations, which has a small observer mission in Abkhazia, disputed Russia's assertion that the U.N. mission had approved of the peacekeepers' increase.

The mission said in a statement that it was seeking more information from the peacekeeping force "on their perception of the current threats to the cease-fire regime and how the strengthening of the (peacekeepers) both in personnel and weapons meets those threats."
Abkhazia has long been supported by Russia, which has stepped up its backing in recent weeks, lifting trade sanctions, establishing legal ties and increasing the peacekeeping force. Russia also supports South Ossetia, another separatist region that, like Abkhazia, seeks either independence from Georgia or absorption into Russia.

Abkhazia's foreign minister said in a Russian newspaper interview published Tuesday that Russia had in essence already recognized the region's independence.

"The lifting of the sanctions came on the orders of (Putin). Russia has de-facto recognized us!" Sergei Shamba was quoted by Izvestia as saying.

Georgian officials claim that Russia is bringing the region to the verge of war and accused Russia of shooting down a pilotless Georgian spy plane over Abkhazia last month — a claim Russia denied.

Abkhazia claimed last weekend that it downed two more spy planes and said another Georgian spy plane had been shot down Thursday. In televised comments, Deputy Defense Minister Garry Kupalba also asserted that Georgia had up to 7,000 troops, along with weaponry, concentrated along the administrative border with Abkhazia.

Georgian defense officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday.
Georgia's push for NATO membership has worried Russia. The alliance declined last month to begin membership preparations for Georgia, but assured its U.S.-allied leadership that the country would eventually join the alliance.

The United States sharply criticized Russia on Tuesday for what it called a series of "provocative actions" surrounding Abkhazia and said Russia must "de-escalate and reverse its measures," and reiterate its commitment to Georgia's "territorial integrity and sovereignty."

The foreign ministers of Sweden, Poland, Slovenia and Lithuania will travel to Tbilisi on Monday for discussions on the situation in Abkhazia, a spokeswoman for Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. The diplomats will meet with Saakashvili, as well as the prime minister and foreign minister, spokeswoman Irena Busic said.
Associated Press writers Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia and Ruslan Khashig in Sukhumi, Georgia, contributed to this report.

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