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Mounting Tensions in Abkhazia Could Spark Caucasus War

Tensions are high in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region as all parties accuse one another of provocations that could lead to war across the volatile Caucasus Mountains. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky examines a dispute that involves the interests of Russia, Georgia and the breakaway region's desire for independence.

Abkhazia today involves a series of charges, countercharges and denials.

Abkhazian rebels say they have shot down several unmanned Georgian surveillance planes over their territory since April. Tbilisi says only one has been hit and offers video as evidence the drone was shot down by a Russian plane. And the Russian Foreign Ministry accuses Georgia of a military buildup near Abkhazia.

All sides say they will defend their interests and territory against possible attacks by the other. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili says Georgia is not a big nation, but has good ammunition, good training, and the motivation to win against any possible aggressor, invader, or occupier. He hastens to add that part of Georgia already is occupied by one of the biggest aggressors.

By that he means Russia, which has troops in Abkhazia, a region that formally belongs to Georgia. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, counters, he expresses his extreme concern at what he says is Georgia's current tendency toward confrontation based on ever more alarming facts that Tbilisi is seeking to resolve the Abkhazian issue by force.

Georgians and Abkhazians are separate ethnic groups within Georgia, a nation concerned about its territorial integrity. Abkhazia seceded from Georgia in the 1990s and seeks formal Russian recognition of its independence. Meanwhile, Moscow has issued Abkhazians Russian passports and has stationed peacekeeping troops in the region.

But independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer tells VOA the Russian peacekeeping battalion is equipped with artillery, which seems inconsistent with its stated mission.

Felgenhauer says U.N. observers have not been allowed to inspect the battalion's positions. He notes, however, that Russian TV was there and showed heavy armaments that indicate Russians are not there as peacekeepers.

Felgenhauer says Moscow is concerned with possible Georgian membership in NATO, which the Kremlin views as a threat. Such membership would put NATO troops just over the mountains from the Russian resort city of Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Felgenhauer warns hostilities could break out at any time.

The military analyst says he was told last year by the President of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, a few days ago by the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilya II, and by Georgian officials - by everybody - that if fighting breaks out it will spread over the entire Caucasus.

The United Nations has expressed concern about the mounting tensions in Abkhazia. And in recent days, officials from the United States and the European Union have been in the area seeking a peaceful resolution to the dispute.