The United States Monday expressed strong support for the Georgian government's efforts to restore authority in the rebellious Ajaria region on the Black Sea Coast. The State Department said it is concerned that the Ajarian leader, Aslan Abashidze, may be trying to provoke a military confrontation.
The Bush administration has forged strong ties with the Georgian government of President Mikhail Saakashvili and it is stepping up diplomatic efforts with the two sides in the conflict, and with Moscow, to try to defuse the situation.
The Ajarian leader, Mr. Abashidze, has rejected an ultimatum from Tbilisi to dismantle militias loyal to him and accept central government authority, and on Sunday his forces blew up two bridges and partly dismantled a railway linking the region with the rest of Georgia.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is "deeply concerned" about the destruction of economic lifelines between Ajaria and the rest of Georgia and said it calls into question Mr. Abashidze's professed commitment to serving the Ajarian peoples' interests.
The spokesman said the United States continues to urge the Georgian government to reject the use of force and to use political and economic tools to restore the rule of law in Ajaria.
He said Mr. Abashidze, for his part, should disarm paramilitary forces in Ajaria, as previously promised, and refrain from provocations. "Recent steps taken by Mr. Abashidze and his government raise concerns that he may be trying to provoke a military crisis, with Georgia's newly democratically-elected leadership, rather than try to resolve the situation peacefully," said Mr. Boucher. "The fundamental issue for us is that Ajaria is part of Georgia. We strongly support the Georgian government's effort to restore its authority and the rule of law in Ajaria. We also believe that the people of Ajaria deserve the same level of democracy and accountability as all the people of Georgia."
Mr. Boucher said the United States has been concerned in recent months about what he said was the willingness of Mr. Abashidze to allow human rights activists and journalists in Ajaria to be harassed and abused, including what he said have been cases of "brutal beatings" and arrests on false pretenses.
The U.S. ambassador in Tbilisi, Richard Miles, discussed the crisis Monday with President Saakashvili and Mr. Boucher said U.S. officials have also been in contact with local authorities in Ajaria.
The spokesman also said the United States raised the situation frequently in recent weeks with Russia, including at meetings between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russia has a military base in Ajaria and has been accused by Tbilisi authorities of aiding Ajarian separatists. Moscow, for its part, has accused Georgia of harboring Chechen rebels.