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1 May, 2009 00:39

Russian guards to keep borders of Abkhazia, S. Ossetia

Russia will now guard the borders South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but even with the new measures, fear remains that war may return to the conflict-torn countries who won their independence less than a year ago.

The agreement, which will delegate protection of the borders of the new countries to Russian troops, was signed in Moscow on Tuesday. The deal has a five-year term and may be prolonged if necessary.

Russia is also to help Abkhazia and South Ossetia build border troops and police forces of their own to eventually be able to continue the security measures themselves.

“Building national border keeping forces is a key factor for securing national borders,” said President Dimity Medvedev, who signed the agreement on Russia’s behalf. “People are tired of living in constant fear waiting for shooting.”

The agreement specifically says that it’s not against some third county and will not affect other international treaties.

NATO considers the deal signed by Russia and the two republics to be a breach of earlier agreements.

“This [signing of the pacts] is in clear contravention of the August 12 and September 8 agreements negotiated by the EU and is not in the interests of long-term peace and security in the South Caucasus region,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

But one of the reasons why Abkhazians and Ossetians fear a new armed conflict is the support that NATO countries give to Georgia in rebuilding their troops after the war in August 2008. The NATO-sponsored war games that are about to begin in Georgia is one example, according to the Russian president.

“The NATO military exercises in Georgia are an outright provocation, however they try to convince us otherwise,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said.

“We take any action, which Tbilisi may take as an encouragement of the course of remilitarization and senseless building up of the military, as conflicting with the six principles of conflict resolution agreed on in August last year.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. administration has expressed “serious concern” over the new agreement between Russia and the republics.

A written statement released by State Department spokesperson Robert Wood said that the deal contravenes Russia's commitments under the August 12 ceasefire and “violates Georgia’s territorial integrity.”

Wood urged Russia to "honor its commitments" under last year's ceasefire deal and said that "establishing a 'border' under the control of Russian soldiers marks another step in the opposite direction."

Border tension remains high

Meanwhile tensions remain on the border between Georgia and its former republics. A checkpoint in the Abkhazian town of Gali came under fire several weeks ago. Abkhazian border patrolmen blame Georgian militants for the shelling. They say the group illegally crossed the border at night and launched a sneak attack.

“In the morning they walked around and found RPG shells at the bus stop nearby,” recalls Radik Agrba, deputy commander at the ‘Ingur’ checkpoint.

Abkhazia declared independence from mainland Georgia in the early nineties. For more than 15 years it remained a frozen conflict zone. In 2008, after Georgia launched a military campaign against Tskhinval, Russia recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, signing treaties on diplomatic and military cooperation.

Following separate terrorist attacks in the capital Sukhum last year, Abkhazian officials ordered the border with Georgia to be blocked, blaming Tbilisi for organizing them.

The situation at the checkpoint in Gali remains tense, but locals say it is possible to get into Georgia – but not for sight-seeing. Despite recent incidents the border remains open for those traveling for humanitarian reasons, such as family events and medical emergencies. Many locals have relatives abroad, so they have to cross this bridge every once in a while.

The Gali district is the only territory of Abkhazia where ethnic Georgians are a majority. Over 60,000 refugees returned to the region in recent years.

Local resident Avtandil Ezugbaya is the headmaster of the school in Gali. His wife Liya recently gave birth to their son Luca. The family hopes to share the good news with their relatives in mainland Georgia.

“After the war the ties were broken, but not all ties. He’s still in touch with his relatives, but he wants to see them more often. Politics are politics, but he’d like to restore all human ties,” says Avtandil Ezugbaya.

Officials in Gali say they would be glad to make the border more open for civilians and harder for criminals to cross, but it cannot be done without Russia’s help. A deal to allow both sides to modernise their checkpoints is a long-awaited agreement, says Ruslan Kishmaria, a presidential envoy to the Gali district.

“There were attacks every day and the district needed this treaty like air and water. And they’ve been waiting for the treaty for a very long time,” says Ruslan Kishmaria.