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GEORGIA-RUSSIA

Tensions Rise Sharply Over Abkhazia

Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi escalated over the weekend amid reports that Russian military reinforcements were being deployed in Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia and local residents were being forced to swap their ID cards for Russian passports.

Russian-led peacekeeping forces in the region denied a report Friday by Georgia's Rustavi 2 television that it had video evidence that divisions of the Maikop brigade had been sent to the Ochamchira region, which is mostly populated by ethnic Georgians.

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Diordiev, an aide to the commander of the peacekeeping forces, criticized the report as an attempt to "keep tension high and prolong provocations against the Russian peacekeepers," Interfax reported.

But Georgia's minister for reintegration, Temur Iakobashvili, said Sunday that isolated cases of Georgian citizens being forced to exchange their ID cards for Russian passports had been confirmed. He urged caution and said his government wanted a full report from the local United Nations observer mission.

"There is some evidence that this type of thing is happening," he said by telephone from Tbilisi. "On what scale, it's hard to say."

The reports of troop movements came just one day after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili called for the expulsion of Russian peacekeepers. "Russia's presence, the presence of the Russian contingent in the conflict zone, is becoming a risk factor," Saakashvili told a meeting with foreign ambassadors broadcast on national television.

Relations between the two countries have been strained after Georgia accused the Russian military of shooting down an unmanned spy plane over Abkhazia, a charge denied by Moscow.

The accusations and escalating rhetoric continued to spill over from both sides last weekend. Valery Kenyaikin, an official from the Russian Foreign Ministry said Russia would take "all possible measures" to protect its citizens in Abkhazia if fighting broke out," provoking an outcry from Georgia.

The United States reiterated its support for Georgia and criticized Russia's overall policy toward breakaway republics. "We hope Russia will retract this statement as well as the steps it recently announced to strengthen its ties with Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore said, The Associated Press reported.

Iakobashvili, who told The Moscow Times in February that Georgia would respond to any Russian recognition of the republics militarily, denied that his government was planning any armed response after the news report and urged diplomacy. "Instead of trying to handle the cases one by one, we should change the general attitude there and have a system where this kind of things will not happen," he said. "We are not going to employ a reactive policy but to change the situation on the ground in a way that human rights will be respected."

(The Moscow Times 28.iv.08)

 
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