Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said Monday that Russian peacekeepers in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia should not be removed until another peacekeeping force is ready to replace them. The presence of the peacekeepers has been a source of tension between Russia and Georgia.
Mr. Shevardnadze does not want the Russian troops to stay forever, only until a suitable replacement force can be found, preferably from the United Nations. But he said that at this time, that does not appear likely.
The Georgian president said any pullout by Russian peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia would be harmful to the region and that he is categorically against their withdrawal.
Abkhazia lies in northwestern Georgia on the border with Russia.
About 3,000 Russian troops have been based in the region since a 1994 cease-fire that ended the war between Georgia and the rebels in Abkhazia.
The agreement allowing the peacekeepers to stay is usually renewed every six months, but it expired on December 31 without being renewed. Many Georgian parliamentarians lobbied for the removal of the Russian troops, and Mr. Shevardnadze promised to investigate the situation.
The peacekeepers have been a source of contention between Georgia and Russia since they arrived in 1994. Many Georgians view the troops as an interference in Georgian affairs.
They also accuse the Russians of helping the Abkhaz separatists during the war that broke out in the region in 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Georgian officials charge the Russians supplied the separatists with weapons, training and troops. Moscow has denied the charges.
About 10,000 people died and almost 250,000 Georgian refugees fled Abkhazia during the fighting. Abkhaz officials would like to be completely independent from Georgia but so far Abkhazia is not internationally recognized as an independent country.
Russian troops and a small group of UN personnel patrol the border area between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, but there has been sporadic fighting since the cease-fire.