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Georgian Rebel Region Denies Expelling Villagers


TBILISI (Reuters) -- Georgia has said separatist forces in the Russian-backed breakaway region of Abkhazia had expelled dozens of Georgian families overnight, but the Abkhaz authorities dismissed the accusation.

The Georgian Interior Ministry said around 50 families were forced from the village of Otobaia by Abkhaz forces searching for a resident of the village.

"They went house-to-house and told them to leave and not to come back until they hand him over," Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.

Otobaia lies in Abkhazia's eastern Gali region, home to a large ethnic-Georgian community that complains of discrimination. Tensions over Georgia's breakaway, pro-Russian regions erupted in a five-day war last August in which Russian forces smashed a Georgian assault on another rebel province, South Ossetia.

Russia has recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and has thousands of troops in both regions.

Utiashvili said the Georgian villagers had crossed the de facto border from Abkhazia and were unsure when they would be able to return. He said the man being searched for was in hospital in Georgia after being shot by Abkhaz forces.

Asked about the accusations, the Abkhaz government's Gali representative Ruslan Kishmaria told Reuters: "It's rubbish. Nothing happened there."

Unarmed European Union observers are monitoring a fragile cease-fire, but are denied access to both rebel regions. A spokeswoman for the mission said monitors were checking the reports.

The Georgian Interior Ministry also accused Russian forces of sending heavy armor to the Gali region. Russia's Interfax news agency quoted an Abkhaz security official as saying a regular rotation of Russian forces was under way near the boundary line.
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