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Georgia: Attacks On Russian Checkpoints Heighten Tensions In Abkhazia

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Since Washington disclosed plans to send military instructors to train the Georgian Army as part of the war on terror, several incidents have been reported along the demarcation line that separates Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. It's feared that further deterioration might compromise efforts to reach a peaceful settlement of the 1992-93 conflict.

Prague, 9 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tension between Georgia and its breakaway republic of Abkhazia escalated over the weekend when unknown armed assailants reportedly fired at Russian peacekeepers deployed in the region.

A series of five separate attacks were reported the evening of 6 April along the demarcation line that has separated Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia since 1993, when both sides agreed to a cease-fire after several months of war. There were no casualties in the incidents, and the assailants reportedly escaped unhurt.

With one exception, all the attacks took place on the Abkhaz side of the cease-fire line, on the right bank of the Inguri River.

The government of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia blamed a Georgian guerrilla group known as the Forest Brothers for the incidents. Despite Tbilisi's claims to the contrary, Abkhazia alleges that the group, which operates in the security zone that runs along the demarcation line, has links with the Georgian secret services.

Even though they are officially described as "partisans" by Georgian authorities, the Forest Brothers are suspected of cross-border smuggling operations conducted with Abkhaz-based criminal gangs and with the tacit approval of Russian soldiers.

The acting commander of the 1,800-strong Russian peacekeeping force, General Aleksandr Yevteev, said the 6 April attacks -- which he said stretched across almost the entire demarcation line -- were a "provocation" aimed at gauging the combat readiness of his men and an attempt to disrupt efforts to negotiate a political solution to the 1992-93 Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

The Russian command said the incidents, which they described as "the most serious attacks for quite a long time," prompted them to place troops on high alert. Georgian authorities have denied any involvement in the incident.

Georgia's state-controlled television yesterday quoted Klementi Tevzadze, the commander of the Georgian peacekeeping force that controls the left bank of the Inguri River, as blaming drunken Russian soldiers for the 6 April shootouts, which he described as "mock attacks."

Other Georgian officials suggest the incidents might be a Russian ploy aimed at undermining a Georgian-Abkhaz agreement reached last week (2 April) over the disputed Kodori Gorge.

Under the terms of the accord, the Georgian Defense Ministry is to withdraw by tomorrow some 350 troops it had dispatched last fall to the upper part of the gorge after a series of armed clashes between Abkhaz troops and alleged Georgian guerrillas and Chechen fighters. The withdrawal should, in principle, allow Russian peacekeepers and United Nations military observers mandated to monitor the Georgian-Abkhaz cease-fire to resume joint patrols in the area.

Georgia's withdrawal from Kodori is one of the conditions included in a UN-sponsored draft treaty providing for the distribution of competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia.

At a regional security meeting held last month (30 March) in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly backed the blueprint, which would leave Abkhazia within Georgia's jurisdiction. But many in Tbilisi continue to see Russia as the major obstacle to a settlement of the conflict.

Tamaz Nadareishvili is a member of Georgia's legislature and the former chairman of the prewar Abkhaz parliament. Nadareishvili, who also sits on the Georgian National Security Council, told RFE/RL that, in his view, escalating tension is not in Tbilisi's interests. He blamed both Russia and Abkhazia for the recent incidents.

"Neither Georgian officials nor partisans -- I would say almost no one in Georgia -- has any interest in escalating tension at a time when we are expecting the arrival of U.S. soldiers who will begin training [our] armed forces and pave the way for the creation of a professional army. We have no interest in escalating tension also because we are expecting to be handed a draft treaty on the distribution of competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, which, by the way, we are sure the Abkhaz side will reject."

Announced more than a month ago (26 February), the dispatching of American military advisers to Georgia is officially aimed at training the country's armed forces in antiterror operations and at helping them restore law and order in a crime-ridden area bordering Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Initially scheduled for mid-March, the arrival of the U.S. advisers has been delayed, raising speculation that Georgia might attempt to downplay its military cooperation with the U.S. in hope of gaining Russia's support on the Abkhaz issue.

Addressing reporters yesterday, however, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said "technical reasons" alone are to blame for the delay.

"It seems to me that [the U.S. side] wants to give its specialists further training -- for example, by teaching them some Georgian words and sentences -- because they are going to work with [men] who don't always know English very well. They are also trying to solve other problems related to the adaptation [of their specialists] to our conditions. One week, 10, days or 15 days is not such a big deal. They will come, there is no doubt about that. And together we will prepare armed forces that will meet [all] modern criteria."

The U.S. decision to send instructors to Georgia has raised speculation in both Abkhazia and Russia -- which supported separatist forces against Georgian troops during the war and de facto controls the separatist region -- that Tbilisi might plan to resume hostilities. Georgia's denials have failed to reassure Abkhaz leaders, who have threatened to demand that the region be united with Russia.

Washington's decision has been followed by a series of deadly incidents along the Georgian-Abkhaz demarcation line.

On 18 March, four Russian peacekeepers were abducted from a checkpoint and released a few hours later. No one claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, but Abkhazia pointed to the Forest Brothers -- the same armed guerrilla group blamed for the most recent attacks.

A week later (26 March), Russian peacekeepers fired at civilians living near the demarcation line, slightly wounding one resident. The Russian command initially denied the report, but later admitted to the sanctioning of soldiers over the incident.

The next day, a bomb went off in an Abkhaz suburban train, killing one passenger and injuring 15. Georgian secret services have dismissed Sukhumi's accusations that they were responsible for the blast.

Last week (4 April), Georgian officials reported that one Abkhaz fighter had been killed and two others arrested while attempting to cross the demarcation line. The three were reportedly planning to kill the commander of the Forest Brothers.

Finally, three days before the alleged attacks on 6 April at Russian checkpoints, Georgian traffic police detained a couple of Russian army trucks near Tbilisi amid suspicion that they were illegally carrying weapons from Akhalkalaki, a mostly ethnic Armenian region in southern Georgia where Russia keeps a military base. The trucks were released after a thorough inspection of their cargo.

Although this incident has no apparent links with the situation in Abkhazia, it is nonetheless symptomatic of the tension that prevails in Georgia.

Nadareishvili sees a direct link between these incidents and Washington's decision to dispatch troops to Georgia.

"I believe, and I've always believed, that the conflict between Abkhaz and Georgians is not an ethnic conflict. It is a military and political conflict that started after the breakup of the Soviet Union and that is the result of a redistribution of [spheres of influence] in the Caucasus region. The Russians want to keep their zone of influence, while the Americans want to have a sphere of influence of their own. We've now reached a peak and Georgia is naturally the place where this redistribution is taking place."

In an apparent attempt to downplay the significance of the recent incidents, Shevardnadze yesterday vowed to cooperate with Russia in order to reduce tensions along the demarcation line.

"I believe that we have had a more businesslike relationship with the Russian peacekeeping force over the recent past. I also believe that we must maintain such a relationship with Russian peacekeepers as long as they remain on the territory of Abkhazia, on our territory. I am pleased that our defense minister [David Tevzadze] is in contact with them. Regarding incidents such as shootouts, kidnappings and so on, we can avoid them by joining forces."

Hours later, however, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a harsh statement describing the reported attacks as part of a campaign aimed at "provoking a new armed confrontation in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone," and blaming Tbilisi for condoning the activities of armed irregulars operating along the demarcation line.

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