SUKHUMI (Reuters) -- Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, celebrating its first national day since Russia recognized it as an independent state, has sent a defiant message to Tbilisi that Moscow would defend it.
Russian and Abkhazian flags fluttered in the capital, Sukhumi, for the celebrations marking the 15th anniversary of the Black Sea region's victory over Georgian forces in a separatist war.
A month ago, Russia recognized Abkhazia's independence despite objections from Europe and the United States.
Russia's recognition came after its forces crushed a Georgian attempt to regain control of a second breakaway region, South Ossetia. The conflict aroused Western concern over broader stability of the Caucasus region and the transit of energy supplies from the Caspian Sea to Western Europe.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged Moscow's support for Abkhazia in a telegram, but he and his ministers snubbed the celebrations.
"Russia will in future offer friendly Abkhazia the maximum amount of effort in maintaining its security, its economic development, and the creation of conditions for the population to live well," said the message.
Tears And Joy
Abkhazia's separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh oversaw a parade on the capital's Victory Square, standing on the steps of the old parliament, gutted and empty since heavy fighting ruined the town in 1993.
"Georgia remains an aggressive neighbor ... I am convinced of one thing: it will long employ terrorism as the main instrument in its policies towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Bagapsh had told war veterans on the eve of the holiday. "This is why we had to take the most serious steps to secure the safety of society and state. To realize this aim we entered military-technological cooperation with Russia, in whom we see the guarantor of peace and stability in the Caucasus."
Abkhazians had rushed to smarten up Sukhumi for the occasion. Pavements had been repaired and roads resurfaced.
Marines, soldiers, and representatives of the Cossack volunteers that supported the Abkhazians marched across the square, before tanks, rocket launchers and artillery pieces trundled past.
Georgia's pro-Western leadership accused Russia of effectively annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi says Abkhazia's split from Georgia is illegitimate because hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians forced to flee the region in the war have never been consulted.
Russia has pledged to pull its troops out of Georgia by October 15, but says it intends to keep 7,600 soldiers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia permanently. Those Russian soldiers present during the national day celebrations were mobbed by cheering Abkhazians.
Among the smiling throng, a few individuals hunted out memorials to sons or husbands killed in the 1992-93 war.
"We celebrate and we cry all together," said Feniya Leiba-Khagush, 62, as she stroked the engraved name of her only son Robert among the 1,667 names on the town center memorial.
"The pain will never leave us, but we are grateful that we are understood now. Thanks to Medvedev, we are safe, he saved us, he is a true hero of Abkhazia," she said.