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Georgia: Annan Urges Abkhaz Side To Start Status Talks With Tbilisi

United Nations, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has repeated his appeal to separatist Abkhaz officials to begin UN-brokered negotiations on settling their conflict with Georgia.

Annan says in a new report to the UN Security Council, released yesterday (18 July), that Abkhaz officials have declined requests by UN and Russian envoys during the past two months to accept a UN-drafted document that has been proposed as a basis for peace talks.

UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe told a news briefing that Annan regretted the lack of progress on the political status talks: "[Annan] appeals again to the Abkhaz side, in particular, to agree to a discussion on the substance on the paper on competences and to use this opportunity to commence negotiations on a settlement that would guarantee the rights and interests of the multiethnic population of Abkhazia."

The UN paper calls for determining Abkhazia's status within the state of Georgia. The province gained de-facto independence in 1993 following two years of fighting with Georgian forces and has had the informal protection of Russia since then. Russia, a key member of the small UN group promoting the peace process, this year approved of the formulation calling for Abkhazia to remain part of Georgia, after numerous delays.

Separatist officials continue to reject the UN paper on the grounds of Abkhazia's self-declared independence. The secretary-general's new special envoy for the conflict, Heidi Tagliavini, renewed the appeal with Abkhaz officials in Sukhumi last week to accept the proposed document, known as the Basic Principles on the Division of Competences between Tbilisi and Sukhumi."

But Valery Arshba, first deputy president in the self-styled Abkhaz government, refused to accept the paper. He told Tagliavini that the Abkhaz people had already voted in a 1999 referendum to support a constitution defining Abkhazia as an independent state. No other country recognizes Abkhazia as such.

Annan's latest report also calls on both Georgian and Abkhaz authorities to agree on measures to safeguard the return of tens of thousands of internally displaced persons from Georgia to Abkhazia. He says one area of focus should be the poor security situation in Abkhazia's southern Gali district, where many Georgian displaced persons wish to return, and that the two sides should consider international support for local law enforcement agencies.

He says tensions in the Kodori Gorge -- which separates Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia -- appear to have decreased in the past three months but there is still a potential for a flare-up in hostilities.

UN spokeswoman Okabe says Annan sees the 108-member UN military observer mission playing a key role in maintaining stability in the frozen conflict zone. "He remains convinced that the UN mission remains essential for creating the conditions for a political process towards a settlement of the conflict and for moving the process forward."

Annan recommends that the council extend the mission in Georgia by another six months. The council is due to review the report next week and vote on an extension on 31 July.

The secretary-general also called on the Georgian and Abkhaz sides to respect their commitments to ensure the safety of UN mission staff. He said Georgian authorities must improve security for UN patrols so they can monitor the Kodori Gorge independently and regularly. He said helicopter patrols remain suspended because of security concerns. The investigation of the shooting down of a UN helicopter in October, in which nine people were killed, is still ongoing.

Georgian officials have called for more intensive efforts to resolve the conflict by states that belong to an entity known as the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General, which includes Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and Russia.