Georgia police to the gorge as tension grows

Fighting broke out in the Kodori gorge of the breakaway republic of Abkhazia. Georgian authorities sent in police to restore law and order, but said they would not use army units to tackle local militia.

Abkhazian troops and Russian peacekeepers already stationed there told of hearing shots fired. A vehicle carrying Georgian special forces was also reportedly fired on by an unknown group. Georgia accused regional governor Emzar Kvitsiani of running the region as a personal fiefdom. Georgian media said about 60 of his supporters had been detained in the gorge, while Kvitsiani himself might flee to Abkhazia.

Police operations started after Kvitsiani, former plenipotentiary representative of the Georgian president in the area, declared he would no longer take orders from the capital, Tbilisi. Kvitsiani is said to have carried out his governing functions in the gorge backed by a personal militia  known as “The Hunters.”

Conflict flared a year ago when Georgian authorities decided to disperse the militia and replace it with army units. Current tension comes just days after a reshuffle of the Georgian government. Shortly after parliament voted for Russian peacekeepers to withdraw from the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, President Mikhail Saakashvili dismissed the minister in charge of negotiating with the breakaway republics.

A new government was formed and some experts believe its actions in independent-minded areas could be much tougher than before. Abkhazian officials say they are ready to defend what they call their sovereign territory.

Abkhazia’s upper region is the only part of the republic directly controlled by Georgian officials. The local population consists mostly of Svans, one of many ethnic groups living in Georgia. Abkhazia was part of Georgia during Soviet times. In the early 1990s,  Georgian troops entered Abkhazia, which had voted for independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A cease-fire agreement was finally signed in 1994. Since then, Russian peacekeepers, playing a major role in the ceasefire, have been in place in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia.