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Georgia and Russia Escalate War of Words

Russia charges that Georgia is planning military action in its breakaway region of Abkhazia. This charge follows a warning from Moscow that it would defend the separatist republic it recently formed closer ties with, despite protests from Georgia. From Moscow, Colin McCullough reports for VOA.

Georgia denies it has made military maneuvers in preparation for action in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. The charges came from the Russian government and are the latest in a series of accusations from both sides over the sovereignty of the region, which has had de-facto independence since the early 1990s.

Weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued directives to his government to establish closer ties with Abkhazia and South Osettia, another breakaway region in Georgia.

Tensions were ratcheted up when a Georgian surveillance drone was shot down over Abkhazia, by what the Georgian government claims was a Russian MiG-29. Russia denied its air force was in the area.

The conflict was addressed by the U.N. Security Council and brought criticism from some Western countries against Russia's overtures.

The latest accusations from Russia are that the Georgian military has moved troops in the Kodori Gorge, a region in Abkhazia.

"What scares me most of all is that nothing in reality is happening," said Shota Uteashvili, a spokesman with Georgia's Ministry of the Interior. "Not a single person was moved in the Kodori region. And then, all of the sudden those statements from the Russian foreign ministry and the military surprised us. Because the U.N. is right there in the Kodori region. And they want to make sure there is no military presence there."

"Regarding the Zugdidi region, the U.N. has more than 50 observers there and they totally control everything," he added.

The United Nations has had a presence in the region since August, 1993.

The Russian military has issued a statement on its website saying that it would respond to any military action taken by Georgia in the region, against Russian citizens or peacekeepers based there, adding that any action would be met with an "adequate and tough response."

Some observers are concerned this latest exchange may be the precursor to more than heated rhetoric.

"It always seemed to me that this matter was nothing more than words, because it is not of interest to anybody," said Alexander Hramchihin, an independent military analyst, based in Moscow. "But, on the other hand, such rough rhetoric can itself spark a war."

He adds that this all depends upon discussions between the two countries, reiterating, "As a matter of fact, it can develop into a war."

Boris Malakhov, a deputy spokesman for Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says under these conditions, the presence of Russian peacekeepers remains a key factor in the prevention of escalation of tension. And, more importantly, their stabilizing role was once again recently approved in a recent resolution by the U.N. Security Council.

Russia's Ministry of Defense has said it will bolster the number of Russian peacekeepers in the region, in response to Georgia's recent actions. Russian peacekeepers are there under a mandate from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Georgia announced yesterday that it is suspending bilateral talks over Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. As a current member, Georgia would have de-facto veto power over Russia's membership bid. A Georgian official was quoted as saying talks would not continue until Russia rescinds its decision to establish direct ties with Abkhazia and South Osettia.

Russia has pursued membership in the WTO for nearly 15 years.