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UN Peacekeepers Resume Patrolling Abkhazia

U.N. troops are to resume patrolling the Kodori Gorge in the breakaway Abkhazia region of Georgia, three-months after a U.N. helicopter was shot down there. The United Nations is trying to bring both sides to the negotiating table to seek a peace agreement.

The small unit of approximately 100 U.N. military observers stationed in Abkhazia will begin patrolling the Kodori Gorge in February.

The United Nations has said the resumption of patrols is part of an agreement between Georgian and Abkhazian officials reached on January 17. U.N. patrols were suspended last October after a U.N. helicopter was shot down in the gorge, killing the nine-people on board.

Under the agreement, the Georgian troops in the region will begin a withdrawing as the U.N. troops resume patrols. Georgia sent approximately 300 troops into the gorge last fall, after fighting between Abkhaz forces and Georgian rebels broke out in the region.

Abkhaz authorities harshly criticized the move, saying it violated a 1994 cease-fire between Georgia and Abkhazia.

The United Nations is trying to encourage both sides to begin peace talks to put an end to the decade-long conflict.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said Wednesday the political process between the breakaway region of Abkhazia and Georgia had taken a significant step forward. The U.N. Special Representative in Georgia, Dieter Boden, has drawn up a document to serve as a framework to bring both sides to the negotiating table.

But there is still a major obstacle to the U.N. plan and to any peace settlement. The international community recognizes Abkhazia as being part of Georgia and the United Nations insists any settlement must reflect that. Abkhazia considers itself to be completely independent of Georgia, and Abkhaz residents passed a referendum on independence in 1999.

Abkhazia and Georgia fought a two-year war from 1992 until 1994. Almost 10,000 people were killed and about 250,000 refugees, mostly Georgian, fled Abkhazia. A 1994 cease-fire ended open hostilities between the two sides but there is ongoing, small-scale fighting.

In addition to the U.N. personnel already on the ground in Abkhazia, there is also a Russian peacekeeping force of approximately 3,000 soldiers.