Tbilisi, 25 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of refugees from Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia today picketed the Georgian parliament and the Russian embassy to push for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers, whom they accuse of siding with separatists. The ethnic Georgian refugees said the Russians, whose mandate expired at the end of 2001, have done nothing to help refugees return to Abkhazia, which has been controlled by separatists since 1993.
The protesters say Russian peacekeepers, deployed in Abkhazia since 1994 under the authority of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), have acted as border guards, enforcing the rebel province's split from Georgia.
Georgia has proposed giving Abkhazia broad autonomy, but the separatists insist on full independence. The separatists control the entire province, except the Kodori Gorge, where Georgia has retained some troops.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze today rejected the United Nations' recent call to withdraw the troops, saying they are needed to protect civilians and guard a local power line.