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Clashes Flare Anew Near Breakaway Province of Abkhazia


Long-running tensions have significantly escalated near the separatist region of Abkhazia in western Georgia, this week, after Georgian officials launched a raid which they say is aimed at putting down a defiant local militia. But Abkhaz authorities and Russia, which maintains a peacekeeping force in the region, say the raid risks sliding the tensions toward war.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power, in part, on the strength of pledges to win back the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He has yet to do so, in more than two years in office, but some critics of this week's actions, like the unrecognized president of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, say that is what Mr. Saakashvili now aims to do.

In comments broadcast on Russian television, Bagapsh warns that if Georgian troops cross the de-facto borders, his troops will open fire. At the same time, he also is calling for peace talks with Georgia.

President Saakashvili says the only thing Georgia is interested in discussing is how long the militia leader will be in prison after surrendering his weapons.

This kind of tough talk is fairly traditional for the rough and tumble Caucasus, as well as for the charismatic leader, Mr. Saakashvili. Still, it is raising considerable concern, especially in Moscow. Reports that Tbilisi has begun calling up Georgian reservists has done little to calm the situation.

Speaking to reporters just outside Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov characterized the situation in the Kodori Gorge as "changing drastically for the worse." Mr. Ivanov vowed that Russian peacekeepers would protect the peace.

Russia peacekeepers deployed to the region in 1993 at the request of Georgia's then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, who was struggling to put down an insurrection. Much later, Georgian officials came to accuse Russia of supporting the Abkhaz separatist administration. Since then, he topic has been a contentious one between the two nations.

Last week, Georgia's parliament passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia's president was expected to raise the issue during scheduled talks with President Putin, last week. But he abruptly canceled his visit, without explanation.

Meanwhile, latest reports quote a written statement from Georgia's foreign ministry as saying that the operation in the gorge will not be expanded to the territory controlled by separatist Abkhaz authorities.

At least four Georgian officers have been reported wounded in the ongoing operations. This cannot be independently confirmed, because neither journalists, nor rights activists are being granted access to the area. There is no word on possible Abkhaz casualties.