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29 Sep, 2008 23:16

Abkhazia marks its 15th Independence Day

Abkhazia is marking 15 years since it first declared independence from Georgia. Festivities will be held throughout the day. Abkhazians recently asked Moscow to protect them from possible Georgian aggression, following last month's attack on South Ossetia

Those people who’ve come to Sukhum’s Freedom Square to celebrate Independence Day and watch the parade, are in festive mood. Nowadays the Abhazian army is better equipped than it was15 years ago, with its own air force, including helicopters andwar planes, many of which flew over Freedom Square during the celebrations.

September 30 is one of the main holidays in Abhazia. It dates back to the war of 1990s between Georgia and Abhazia.

Iskhan Agumava is the only guard of the Gudauta bridge in the outskirts of the Abkhazian capital. But in 1993, when Sukhum was occupied by Georgian forces, the bridge became the most important strategic target for the warring sides.

This is the place where hundreds of troops died in the fierce battle for Sukhum. The Abkhazian and Georgian positions were so close that sometimes soldiers were able to throw hand grenades at each other. The minefields and the trenches are gone but other traces of war, like bullets, are still here.

Agumava was 21 when Georgia attacked its breakaway republic of Abkhazia in the early 1990s. He fought the war together with his friends and neighbours. Some were as young as 16 at the time.

“We were ready to die, as we knew there was no way back. We went to defend our homeland,” Agumava recalls.

For centuries Abkhazia was a part of the Russian empire. In the 1930s Joseph Stalin signed a decree putting the autonomous republic under Georgian rule. After the fall of the USSR, Abkhazia declared independence, angering the authorities in Tbilisi, who sent armed forces to the region. Massive bloodshed followed, causing hundreds of
thousands to flee their homes.

Russian peacekeepers and UN observers preserved an uneasy peace, but for 15 years Abkhazia remained a frozen conflict zone, forced to live under international political and economic blockade.

In August 2008, following Georgia's violent attack on South Ossetia, Abkhazians asked Russia to protect them from Georgian aggression and to recognise their republic's independence. Last week their dreams came true. In September Abkhazian leaders signed a friendship agreement with Russia, extending political, economic and military cooperation.