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Georgia's Rebel Abkhazia To Allow Russian Base

Abkhazia's leader, Sergei Bagapsh, reviews honor guards upon his arrival in Moscow today.
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region said today it would allow sponsor Russia to build a military base on its soil for land troops, strengthening the region's dependence on Moscow and provoking ire from Tbilisi.

Abkhazia's leader Sergei Bagapsh, who arrived in Moscow today, will sign the deal with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on February 17, separatist officials said.

The Kremlin confirmed the meeting would take place but declined immediate comment on any military agreement.

Moscow recognized the lush Black Sea territory in August 2008 after crushing an assault by U.S. ally Georgia on the other pro-Russian breakaway region of South Ossetia in a five-day war.

"The agreement on Wednesday will allow for one, united military base on Abkhaz territory, for Russian land troops," the rebel region's deputy defense minister, Garri Kupalba, told Reuters by telephone from the regional capital, Sukhumi.

He said the new base, which would link several points across Abkhazia and accommodate at least 3,000 land troops, including units of Russia's FSB border guards, would be built "sometime in the near future."

The European Union and Western alliance NATO have repeatedly expressed concern that a Moscow-led military build-up in Abkhazia threatens Georgia's territorial integrity.

It is also watched with unease by Western powers for its proximity to crucial energy routes which flow to the EU.

Georgia decried the new plans for a land base as illegal.

"Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Georgian territories, and the deployment of foreign troops on the territory of another country is called an occupation," parliamentary speaker David Bakradze told reporters today in Tbilisi. "Since the Russian aggression in 2008, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have become one big military base for Russia."

Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister, Maxim Gvindzia, said the troops for the new base are already stationed in the region.

Land, Air, And Naval Troops

Tbilisi's pro-Western leaders accuse Russia of effectively annexing rebel Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia in bloody separatist wars in the early 1990s.

Since Moscow recognized them as independent, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the tiny island state Nauru followed suit.

Bagapsh, who was re-elected in December in a vote officially ignored by the West, is criticized by some Abkhaz for handing too much influence to former Soviet master Russia, on which Abkhazia depends for passports, pensions, and half its budget.

In April 2009, Russia formally took control over the de-facto borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, provoking condemnation from Western powers.

Russia also installed land, air, and naval troops in the rebel region of 200,000, and started work on several bases which are yet to be completed, causing NATO and the United States to call the moves a violation of international law.

A naval base is planned in Ochamchire on the northern coast, airborne troops for Gudauta on the coast just north of Sukhumi, and land troops in the Kodori Gorge area in the south of the region near the de-facto border with Georgia. It is not yet clear if the Kodori Gorge area will be included in the new projected land base, Kupalba said.