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Tensions Rise Over Georgia's Sea Blockade Of Abkhazia

Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh (left, with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin earlier this month) said Abkhaz ships would "destroy" Georgian ships.

Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh (left, with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin earlier this month) said Abkhaz ships would "destroy" Georgian ships.

(RFE/RL) -- The leader of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia has threatened to destroy any Georgian ship entering Abkhazia's "territorial waters."

"I issued an order to our navy to destroy Georgian ships violating Abkhazia's sea border," Sergei Bagapsh told Interfax. "This step has been motivated by unending acts of piracy by Georgia."

It is the strongest threat to date from Bagapsh in an escalating war of words over Tbilisi's efforts to impose a sea blockade on the territory.

The blockade was imposed after the Russia-Georgia war one year ago. Abkhazia was not directly involved in the hostilities but took the occasion to declare independence and its sovereignty was guaranteed by Russia.

In response to Bagapsh, Tbilisi said it would hold Russia, which controls Abkhazia's borders and coastline, responsible for any attacks on its ships.

"Abkhazia's navy does not exist," Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.

"There are no Abkhaz territorial waters, as these waters belong to Georgia. If there is an attack on Georgian ships, Russia would be responsible, not the separatist government."

Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, told journalists before a government meeting in Tbilisi on September 2 that other officials will comment on Bagapsh statements in due course.

"The Prosecutor-General's Office, the Interior Ministry and the Justice Ministry [instead of the Foreign Ministry] will comment on Bagapsh's statements, because a criminal should be sitting in a jail and [he] definitely will be in a Georgian jail," Vashadze said.

The head of the parliamentary Committee for Eurointegration, Davit Darchiashvili, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that officials also will alert Georgia's allies and international organizations of the brewing crisis.

The Panamanian-flagged Turkish ship "Buket" in Poti
"This issue has to be brought to [international] attention at every level," Darchiashvili said. "On the level of friendly governments, of course, but also on the level of international organizations of which Georgia is a partner, for example, NATO. And Georgia will definitely address the NATO Council or UN or OSCE or the European Union."

Georgia's Blockade

The ratcheting up of tensions over the blockade comes after a Georgian court on September 1 sentenced a Turkish sea captain to 24 years in prison for trying to deliver fuel to Abkhazia in breach of the Georgian economic blockade.

The court in Kutaisi found Mehmet Coskun Ozturk, captain of the Turkish tanker "Buket," guilty of "illegal crossing of the Georgian border and smuggling."

Judge Vakhtang Todia told RFE/RL that Ozturk had been involved in numerous illegal crossings of Georgian territorial waters before his ship was seized last month.

Georgia says it detained the tanker in Georgian waters on its way from Turkey to Abkhazia's capital Sukhumi with a cargo of gasoline aboard. The "Buket" is now impounded in the Georgian port of Poti.

The ship's operator says it was seized at gunpoint in international waters.

By itself, the case of the "Buket" might not seem enough to produce the bitter charges being traded now between Tbilisi and Sukhumi.

But Georgia says it is just the latest incident in a pattern of blockade-running. Tbilisi says it has detained four ships delivering goods to Abkhazia this year, including two within several days of each other late last month. And, much more dangerously for regional stability, Moscow appears increasingly involved in the blockade row.

Russian Involvement

The deputy head of Russian border guards, Lieutenant General Yevgeny Inchin, said on August 28 his forces would ensure the safety of merchant ships entering Abkhaz waters. He did not specify how.

That threat was followed by what appeared to be an effort to dampen tensions slightly as Bagapsh announced that the breakaway region has its own naval capability and would not call upon Russian ships to attack Georgian ships entering its "territorial waters."

"I want to stress that we are talking exclusively about the Abkhaz Navy," Bagapsh told Interfax. "Russia's navy is not being used and will not be used to carry out this task."

Still, there is no doubt Moscow is capable -- and perhaps ready -- to intervene should the blockade running grow into a shooting incident.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi remain at an abysmal low following the war in August last year.

That war began with exchanges of artillery fire across the border of another breakaway region, South Ossetia, and ended with a brief, partial Russian occupation of Georgia proper.

Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are today vassal states of Russia, though Tbilisi and the West regard them legally as part of Georgia's territory.

The danger now is that virtually any spark could reignite hostilities because enmities remain so high.

Both Tbilisi and Moscow have sent strong signals in recent days of a bellicose mood.

Russia said last month it intends to spend some $489 million to reinforce Abkhazia's borders and strengthen Russian military operations there.

RFE/RL's Russian Service reports that Russian forces have a base in the Abkhaz city of Gudauta and are building facilities for another base in the port city of Ochamchire. There are believed to be some 4,000-5,000 Russian troops in Abkhazia.

New, Hard-Line Minister

Meanwhile, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili last week replaced his defense minister, saying he wasn't satisfied with the military's combat readiness.

He appointed Bacho Akhalaya to replace David Sikharulidze, who himself became defense minister just over eight months ago in a cabinet shake-up following Georgia's war with Russia.

Akhalaya, 28, is widely seen in Georgia as a hard-liner ready to use force for political ends.

He is a former head of the Penitentiary Department who has been accused by opposition leaders and human rights groups of presiding over death squads subordinate to the Interior Ministry that carried out extra-judicial killings.

Akhalaya, who denies such charges, says he sees the priorities of the Defense Ministry as "modernization, peace, and integration with NATO."

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report