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Tensions Rise in Breakaway Georgian Province - 2001-10-12

Tensions are rising in the southern Caucasus region after the Georgian government sent troops into an area near the breakaway province of Abkhazia and the Georgian parliament moved to expel Russian peacekeepers from Abkhazia.

Abkhazian separatist leaders called Georgian troop deployments in the Kodori gorge near Abkhazia an act of war and called on Russia to prevent further conflict.

On Thursday, Georgian officials announced that troops would be sent into the Kodori region to protect the local population. The Kodori gorge has been the site of major clashes in the last few weeks and Abkhazian officials said for the first time that they are now carrying out air raids in the region.

Earlier this week, a helicopter carrying observers from the United Nations was shot down in the Kodori gorge, killing all nine people on board. The U.N. observers were to resume monitoring in the region. Their work was stopped last December due to frequent kidnappings in the area.

Thursday, the Georgian parliament voted overwhelming to ask Russian troops stationed in Abkhazia to leave. Roughly 2,000 Russian troops have been based in the region since 1994 to help ease tensions after the 1992-1993 war between Georgia and Abkhazian separatists. The war ended with Georgia withdrawing its forces. Abkhazia has claimed independence but is not officially recognized.

The Georgian troop movements came one day after Russia announced it would be sending more troops into the region to fortify the border between Russia and Abkhazia, saying it was worried about the growing conflict.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been strained in recent years. The Russian government has accused Georgia of helping rebels from the breakaway region of Chechnya in southern Russia.

Moscow says the Chechen rebels frequently travel through Georgia and use it as a base from which to make raids into Chechnya. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Thursday the Georgian government seemed incapable of resolving the situation.

Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze has repeatedly denied these charges and says Russia is trying to stir up opposition to his government by supporting the Abkhazian separatists.