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06 May 2008 14:37
Russia’s deployment of extra troops in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia has brought the prospect of war “very close”, a minister of ex-Soviet Georgia said on Tuesday.
Separately, in comments certain to fan rising tension between Moscow and Tbilisi, the “foreign minister” of the breakaway Black Sea region was quoted as saying it was ready to hand over military control to Russia.
“We literally have to avert war,” Temur Iakobashvili, a Georgian State Minister, told reporters in Brussels.
Asked how close to such a war the situation was, he replied: “Very close, because we know Russians very well.”
“We know what the signals are when you see propaganda waged against Georgia. We see Russian troops entering our territories on the basis of false information,” he said.
Georgia, a vital energy transit route in the Caucasus region, has angered Russia, its former Soviet master with which it shares a land border, by seeking Nato membership.
An April summit of the United States-led Western alliance stopped short of giving it a definite track towards membership but confirmed it would enter one day.
Russia has said its troop build-up is needed to counter what it says are Georgian plans to attack Abkhazia, a sliver of land by the Black Sea, and has accused Tbilisi of trying to suck the West into a war—allegations Georgia rejects.
Tensions have been steadily mounting and escalated after Georgia accused Russia of shooting down one of its drones over Abkhazia in April, a claim Russia denied.
An extra Russian contingent began arriving in Abkhazia last week.
Moscow has not said how many troops would be added but said the total would remain within the 3 000 limit allowed under a United Nations-brokered ceasefire agreement signed in 1994.
Russian soldiers acting as peacekeepers patrol areas between Georgian and Abkhazian forces but handing full military control of the breakaway province to the Kremlin would alarm both the Georgian government and its allies in the West.
“Those 200km, the distance between the Psou and the Inguri rivers, are all Abkhazia. We agree to Russia taking this territory under its military control,” Sergei Shamba, “foreign minister” of Abkhazia, told the Russian newspaper Izvestia.
“In exchange, we will demand guarantees of our security.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had not received an official request from Abkhazia for its military to take control of the region.
After the Nato summit, Moscow announced plans to establish legal links with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another “frozen conflict” region inside Georgia.
Nato has urged Russia to reverse the steps and complained that the deployment of extra troops would add to tensions. The European Union has also expressed concerns.
Iakobashvili said Georgia was urging the European Union to take a more active role in reducing tensions, with options including participating in border control or policing.
“We should have more Europe in these conflict zones,” he said, while adding that no decisions on a bigger EU role had been taken during his talks in Brussels. - Reuters 2008
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