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Georgia: Peace Talks Begin

Tbilisi, 14 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze met with Abkhaz separatist leader Vladislav Ardzinba in Tbilisi today in their first direct peace talks since 1994.

The meeting on resolving the Abkhazian conflict comes on the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of fighting between Abkhaz separatists and Georgian troops.

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov attended the opening of the talks and is due to rejoin them later today.

The meeting appears to be linked to Russian President Boris Yeltsin's invitation early this month to the two sides to sign a peace deal in Moscow. Yeltsin said if they agree to talks, Moscow would propose a phased withdrawal of its 1,600 peacekeepers from the Abkhaz front line. Their mandate expired last month.

Yeltsin said a political solution is needed to give Abkhazia autonomy, but not independence.

Thousands died in the fighting in 1992-93 that has displaced some 200,000 ethnic-Georgian refugees from Abkhazia.

This is Ardzinba's first official visit to Tbilisi since the Abkhaz minority drove out Georgian troops from its territory in 1993.

Yeltsin announced earlier this month that he would invite Shevardnadze and Ardzinba to Moscow to work on a peace agreement. Yeltsin said that if the two sides agree to the talks, Russia will propose a phased withdrawal of its 1,600-strong peacekeeping force. The force patrols the 12-km buffer zone separating the two regions.