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Russian Troops Withdraw From Georgia Gorge - 2002-04-14


Russian troops have withdrawn from a remote gorge in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, ending a tense standoff which began Friday.

The force of around 80 heavily armed Russian soldiers withdrew from the gorge after a tense overnight standoff with Georgia.

The unit's commander says Georgian troops fired on his men during their deployment into the Kodori Gorge near the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Russia says the troops were part of a peacekeeping force which has been in place since 1993, when Abkhaz rebels expelled Georgian troops from the area.

But the Georgians say there was no provision for armed troops to be part of the peacekeeping force, and had demanded they be pulled out.

Earlier on Saturday Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze discussed the situation by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both leaders said the Abkhaz problem can only be resolved through negotiations under the auspices of United Nations mediators.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have long been strained, largely due to the separatist rebellion in Abkhazia, a region which borders on the Black Sea.

The U.N. had brokered an agreement earlier this month which called for Russian peacekeepers to undertake patrols in the gorge along with U.N. observers.

But both Russia and Georgia accused each other of violating the agreement, which led to the stand-off.

Georgia has long accused its giant neighbor of trying to maintain Soviet-style influence by assisting the Abkhaz rebels.

Moscow in turn says Georgia provides safe haven to rebels from Chechnya, the war-torn region just across the border in Russia.

Moscow has been waging a long and bloody fight there against separatists who Russia considers to be terrorists.

American military instructors are due to arrive in Georgia shortly to help train Georgian troops in counterterrorism.

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