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Fighting in Abkhazia Places New Strains on Russia, Georgia Relations - 2001-10-13

Fighting continues in the breakaway region known as Abkhazia in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Clashes between Abkhaz soldiers and guerrilla fighters are now placing new strains on relations between Russia and Georgia.

Officials in the Abkhaz region say about 100 Georgian and Chechen rebels have broken through an encirclement of Abkhaz forces. The rebels are apparently trying to escape from the region and are heading through heavy forests toward Russia or into Georgia. This in turn has led Russia to rush reinforcements to the border region, fearing a rebel presence there could effectively open a new front in the conflict in nearby Chechnya.

Fighting in Abkhazia erupted last week after many years of quiet. On Monday the rebels allegedly shot down a helicopter carrying United Nations' observers, killing all nine people on board.

Now both Russia and Georgia accuse each other of starting the new violence. Russia says Georgia allows Chechen separatists to use Georgian territory as a refuge in their fight against Russian troops in Chechnya. But Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze denies this. He has long accused Russia of backing the Abkhaz in their rebellion against Georgia.

Fighters in Abkhazia broke away from Georgia seven years ago after a bloody rebel war. Since then both sides have maintained a fragile peace in the Black Sea region.

Mr. Shevardnadze wants to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the volatile situation throughout the Caucasus Mountain region. The Georgian leader wants to finalize an agreement with the Abkhaz separatists which would allow tens of thousands of refugees to return there from Georgia.

The U.N. and other international organizations have tried to mediate in the dispute. On Friday the Council of Europe issued an urgent appeal for fighting to stop and political dialogue to start. But the new spiral of violence appears to threaten any immediate hopes of reaching a final settlement.