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Russia Says To Detain Georgian Ships Off Abkhazia

Russian Black Sea naval fleet at Sevastopol
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia will seize any Georgian ship it finds off the Moscow-backed rebel region of Abkhazia, Russia's border-guard service has said, ratcheting up tensions in the Black Sea.

Russia has patrolled the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since it recognized them as independent after a war last August and on September 15 signed a deal to formally establish military bases in both provinces.

The coast guard will detain any ship which enters without permission waters claimed by Abkhazia, the deputy head of Russia's border service Viktor Trufanov was quoted as saying by local news agencies.

"We will do everything to ensure the security of the Russian state, the security of the Abkhaz state," Interfax news agency quoted him as saying. "We have a task and we will fulfill it."

A spokesman for the border-guard service declined comment.

Georgia is blockading the rebel region and has detained ships en route to Abkhazia. It has banned economic and commercial activities there without its permission.

Abkhazia's rebel leader responded with a threat to destroy Georgian ships that enter its territorial waters, saying Tbilisi was trying to suffocate the region's economy.

The Georgian coastguard dismissed the Russian threat and said it would continue to "carry out its duties" in Georgia's territorial waters, which Tbilisi says includes those off the coast of Abkhazia.

"Of course, we are not going to provoke anyone," Coastguard head Beso Shengelia told Reuters. "We act only within the framework of the law."

Russia signed a 49-year deal with Abkhazia and South Ossetia on September 15 to formally establish bases in both regions for 1,700 Russian troops in each region, the Defense Ministry said.

Almost all investment in South Ossetia and Abkhazia comes from Russia. Only Nicaragua and Venezuela have followed Moscow in recognizing the regions as independent.

Both regions threw off Georgian rule in wars in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But shunned by the West, they are dependent on Russian aid and investment.

A lush strip of sub-tropical territory on the Black Sea, Abkhazia was once the playground of the Soviet elite, and hopes to position itself again as a popular tourist destination.

But under Georgian law, foreigners face prosecution if they enter the region without permission from Tbilisi.