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Caucasus: Russian Surprise Landing Angers Georgian Authorities

Prague, 12 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian military helicopters dropped off dozens of soldiers today in a disputed area close to the demarcation line that separates the breakaway republic of Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia, fomenting panic and anger in the southern Caucasus state.

Russia says the operation is part of a peacekeeping mission aimed at protecting ethnic-Georgian residents from possible separatist attacks. But Georgian authorities deny the claim, describing the landing as a unilateral Russian decision.

Georgian lawmaker Iveri Chelidze broke the news in parliament, interrupting an ongoing debate to announce he had received information showing that eight Russian aircraft coming from Sukhumi, the capital of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, had landed in the upper Kodori Gorge.

Before adjourning the session, Parliament Speaker Nino Burdzhanadze told deputies that President Eduard Shevardnadze had given Defense Minister David Tevzadze permission to take all measures he deems necessary.

Defense Ministry spokesman Mirian Kiknadze said Georgia's armed forces have been placed on high alert.

Addressing reporters in the Black Sea port city of Poti, where he was overseeing planned naval exercises, Tevzadze said the landing party -- which Russia says belongs to its peacekeeping force monitoring the demarcation line -- had been surrounded by Georgian troops. Tevzadze also said Georgian soldiers have been ordered to shoot in case of unsanctioned Russian actions.

"It has been decided to open fire in case [the Russians] undertake any action without prior notice. The order has been transmitted to commanders in charge of operations at the site," Tevzadze said.

Tevzadze also said Georgian authorities had enjoined the officer in charge of the Russian peacekeeping force to withdraw the troops from Kodori by the end of today.

"The [Russian] general commanding the peacekeeping contingent [Aleksandr Yevteev] has been given an ultimatum. He must withdraw his troops by the end of the day without making a fuss," Tevzadze said.

Shevardnadze and Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili met behind closed doors with Boris Pastukhov, the visiting chairman of the CIS Affairs Committee of Russia's State Duma.

No details of the talks were made available, but Georgian state television later quoted Pastukhov as saying he had informed Russian President Vladimir Putin of Georgia's objections to the deployment.

Shevardnadze is scheduled to fly to Kodori later today.

Located on the Abkhaz side of the demarcation line, Kodori last fall was the scene of deadly armed clashes between Abkhaz troops and alleged Georgian guerrillas and Chechen fighters. Tbilisi subsequently dispatched army troops to the upper part of the gorge, officially to protect ethnic Georgians living there from separatist attacks.

Under an agreement reached 10 days ago between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, Georgian Army troops were scheduled to withdraw 11 April to allow United Nations military observers and Russian peacekeepers to resume joint patrols in the area.

Talking to reporters in Kodori, a spokesman for the Russian peacekeeping force, Igor Konovenkov, said today's landing is part of the planned takeover. "Due to the recent activation of units under the Abkhaz defense minister, peacekeeping forces are installing an observatory post in the upper part of the Kodori Gorge. The decision is linked, first and foremost, to the need to protect civilians living in Upper Svaneta, in Kodori. It is also connected with the planned organization of joint patrols by [Russian] peacekeeping forces and international observers of the UN mission," Konovenkov said.

Both Abkhazia and Russia previously denied Georgian reports that Abkhazia was moving troops to Kodori.

The separatist region seceded from Georgia in 1992, prompting a brief war with Tbilisi. Supported by Russia, separatist troops succeeded in repelling Georgian armed forces beyond the Inguri River, which marks the administrative border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

In 1993, both sides agreed to a cease-fire to be monitored by UN observers and a 1,800-strong Russian peacekeeping force. But they have failed so far to settle their dispute.

Despite Moscow's denials, Georgia accuses Russian peacekeepers of supporting Abkhaz separatists. Sukhumi, in turn, claims that Tbilisi condones armed incursions made by so-called "Georgian partisans" into Abkhaz territory.

Relations between Sukhumi and Tbilisi came under further strain after the United States announced on 26 February its intention to send up to 200 military advisers to Georgia, officially to train the country's armed forces in anti-terror operations and to help them restore law and order in a crime-ridden area bordering Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Abkhazia alleges Georgia will take advantage of the U.S. military assistance to attempt to retake the separatist region by force. Authorities in Tbilisi have repeatedly denied the charge, but they have failed to appease Sukhumi's concerns.

A series of armed incidents has taken place along the demarcation line in recent days, heightening tension between Georgia and Abkhazia.

Initially scheduled for mid-March, the arrival of the U.S. advisers has been delayed. On 8 April, Shevardnadze said technical reasons were to blame for the delay.