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6 May, 2008 16:42

Abkhazia appeals for Russian military help

Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia says it's ready to give Russia military control over its territory in exchange for security guarantees. It comes in response to fears that Georgia is building troop numbers on its border and is planning an invasion

Abkhazian President Sergey Bagapsh said: “We are willing to sign a military treaty with the Russian Federation, which will make it possible for Russian troops to be deployed on Abkhazian territory. We need this as a safeguard in case Georgia demands that peacekeeping forces be withdrawn from the area. We have expressed our willingness more than once. We don’t know what the Russian side will decide but our people would like to see it happen.”

So far Russia has refused to step in directly, but on Monday Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated Georgia is responsible for the increased tension.

“Georgia's course is designed to undermine all agreements, in particular the settlement of the Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhazian conflicts. The extreme concern we feel is linked to a tendency to stir up confrontation,” Mr Lavrov said.

Russia's Defence Ministry says it won't let Georgia breach agreements with Abkhazia by sending unmanned aircraft to spy on the breakaway republic.

“Escalating tensions, Georgia says its aircraft will continue to fly over the conflict zone,” Russia’s Major General Vladimir Shamanov said.

“Such steps violate the Moscow Agreement on the Ceasefire and Separation of Forces, as well as other conflict settlement documents. We will not allow that to happen,” he stated.

Meanwhile, thousands have gathered in Abkhazia’s capital Sukhumi for a rally in support of Russian initiatives concerning the breakaway republic. The demonstrators are holding banners saying “Yes to Russia”, “No to NATO”, and “Russia and Abkhazia are reliable partners”.

Washington has urged Georgia to avoid any kind of military action while settling its territorial disputes.

But the Americans have also called on Moscow to cancel its recent decision aimed at helping Russian citizens in Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

For its part, Georgia says a Russian military presence would escalate tensions.

Tbilisi also announced that it’s pulling out of an air defence agreement with Russia.

Both steps come amid tensions over Georgian spy flights.

Last month, Abkhazia shot down an unmanned Georgian spy plane over its territory.
Georgia then accused Russia of downing the jet. But Moscow provided evidence to the UN indicating that it was not behind the incident.

Russian peacekeepers in the region

Georgia is calling on the international community to help prevent the escalating tension spilling over into conflict.

Georgia's Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili told assembled media in Brussels that Russia's decision to send more peacekeepers to Abkhazia meant the possibility of war was very close.

“Literally, we have to avert a war because we see what is happening on the ground. We have all indications that Russia is trying to provoke Georgia to start a war. That’s very clear. We have been showing restraint. We’ve seen footage of Russian troops moving in and bringing with them equipment that should not be in that zone, it’s a violation of all sorts of agreements,” said Yakobashvili.

There are 3,000 Russian peacekeepers currently in the region, who are stationed under the UN mandate. Until recently, there were 2,000 peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia. But last week Moscow took the decision to increase the forces, after reports Georgia was building up troops on the Georgian-Abkhazian border.

Moscow has dismissed Georgian criticism of its military build-up, saying that it is allowed under a 1994 ceasefire agreement signed by Georgia and Abkhazia.

Years of conflict

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia broke away from Georgia, causing war.

Russia has very close links with the republic, with 80% of Abkhazia’s population holding Russian passports. And although Russia has never recognised Abkhazia it has been giving the republic financial support.

Since Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in 2004, Georgia and Russia have themselves seen strained relations, which included expulsions of diplomats and imposing sanctions.