Thursday, May 8, 2008

"Russian Moves Leave Georgie Braced for War": Oh Joy

MOSCOW, Russia (AP) -- Russia's Defense Ministry said Thursday that it could further increase its peacekeeping forces in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, where the threat of renewed fighting increased international alarm.

Protesters demonstrated outside the Russian embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, on May 7.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, meanwhile, said the threat of war with Russia remained high, and the possibility of open conflict was very real just a few days ago.

Western-leaning Georgia and breakaway Abkhazia are at the center of struggle between Moscow and the West for influence in the strategically located South Caucasus.

And as Georgia pushes aggressively for NATO membership and tries to draw closer to the United States, tensions have grown dramatically in recent months.

Russian peacekeepers, which have served in Abkhazia since the region broke away from Georgian control in the 1990s, are an irritant in relations between Moscow and Georgia. A recent increase in Russian forces has drawn criticism from the United States and European Union.

The Defense Ministry said the recent increase brought the number of peacekeepers in Abkhazia to 2,542 -- up from 1,997.

The ministry also accused Georgia of dispatching forces to the area, and said that further steps in that direction could prompt Russia to increase its forces to the maximum 3,000 peacekeepers allowed under a 1994 agreement.

"All of this is for one purpose -- to keep peace and avoid bloodshed," the ministry said in a statement.

Abkhazian and Russian authorities have claimed Georgia is preparing for an offensive to take control of the region by force.

Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili rejected those claims, but he said that Georgia would respond if attacked.

"We are not going to wage a war in Abkhazia and solve this conflict by military means," he said in remarks broadcast by Georgian TV.

Kezerashvili also said Russia had already exceeded the numerical limit on peacekeepers and said additional troops would be viewed as aggressors.

Saakashvili was quoted by the Interfax and RIA-Novosti news agencies as saying Russia and Georgia had been on the verge of war.

"I believe that we were very close (to war) a few days ago, I think, and this threat persists," Saakashvili was quoted as saying.

However, "Georgia is not planning and cannot fight against Russia. We do not even have enough combat capable units," he was quoted as saying.

The United Nations, which has a small observer mission in Abkhazia, disputed Russia's assertion that the U.N. had approved of the peacekeepers' increase.

The mission said in a statement that it was seeking more information from the peacekeeping force "on their perception of the current threats to the cease-fire regime and how the strengthening of the (peacekeepers) both in personnel and weapons meets those threats."

Abkhazia, which has had de-facto independence breaking away in the 1990s, has long been supported by Russia, and Moscow has stepped up support in recent weeks, lifting trade sanctions, establishing legal ties and increasing the peacekeeping force.

Georgian officials claim that Russia is bringing the region to the verge of war and accused Russia of shooting down a pilot-less Georgian spy plane over Abkhazia last month -- a claim Moscow denied.

Abkhazia claimed last weekend that it downed two more spy planes and said another Georgian spy plane had been shot down on Thursday.

Russia also supports another separatist region, South Ossetia, which, like Abkhazia, has sought either independence or absorption into Russia.

Georgia's push for NATO membership has worried Moscow. The alliance last month declined to begin membership preparations for Georgia, but assured its U.S.-allied leadership that the country would eventually join.

The United States sharply criticized Russia on Tuesday for what it called a series of "provocative actions" surrounding Abkhazia and said Moscow must "de-escalate and reverse its measures," and reiterate its commitment to Georgia's "territorial integrity and sovereignty."

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