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Russian reinforcements join peacekeepers in Abkhazia

RIA Novosti

09/05/2008 16:46 (Adds Russian ambassador in Georgia quotes in paras 12-13)

MOSCOW, May 9 (RIA Novosti) - Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict zone to strengthen the Collective CIS Peace Keeping Force have started performing their duties, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said on Friday.

Russia, which has run peacekeeping operations in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since bloody conflicts in the 1990s, has recently dispatched additional troops to Abkhazia to deter what it calls a planned Georgian military offensive. Tbilisi accuses Russian troops of siding with separatists and calls for replacing them with an international contingent.

"Russian peacekeeping units deployed to the Tkvarcheli district in Abkhazia as part of measures to strengthen the Collective CIS Peace Keeping Force... have started performing their duties," the ministry said in a statement.

Moscow has increased the number of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia from 2,000 to 3,000 servicemen, but said that it was within the limits set by earlier agreements with the Georgian leadership.

Russia's Foreign Ministry released a statement on April 30 defending the increase in peacekeepers, saying it was "aimed at ensuring the basic rights of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's residents."

Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi have been escalating rapidly since Russia's former president Vladimir Putin called for closer ties between Moscow and the two breakaway republics in mid-April. Tbilisi also accused Russia of shooting down a drone on April 20 - a claim Russia flatly denied, calling Georgia's video footage fake.

Abkhazia has since claimed it had downed several more Georgian reconnaissance planes, with the last one having reportedly been shot down on Thursday. Tbilisi denied the downings.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Saakashvili said Tbilisi could sign a non-aggression deal with its breakaway regions on condition "an effective peacekeeping format" be ensured in the conflict zones.

Iosif Chakhoashvili, head of the Georgian Reintegration Ministry's Russian department, voiced on Friday apprehensions that Russia could resort to provocation in the Kodori Gorge, in the northeast of Abkhazia, which could trigger a military conflict.

"We have never had and will never have intentions to wage this war. But this is something Russia has been pushing Georgia to, for us to start," Chakhoashvili said adding that Georgia suspected, on the contrary, that Russia itself would provoke a war by staging a provocation in the Kodori Gorge.

Merab Kishmaria, Abkhazia's defense minister, said on Sunday that Georgia had deployed almost 7,500 troops on its border with Abkhazia. He said should a military operation begin, some 3,000 troops will apparently be deployed to seize the Kodori Gorge.

Russian ambassador to Tbilisi, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, said Russia had no enmity toward Georgia and that Moscow was not seeking to wage war.

"The situation in Abkhazia is very complicated. And in this light there is one thing I want to say - Russia has no hostile feelings toward Georgia, nor there is confrontation between Russia and Georgia," Kovalenko told reporters.

Abkhazia, alongside South Ossetia, broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and some 3,000 in Georgian-South Ossetian hostilities. Georgia is looking to regain control over the two de facto independent republics.


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