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Friday, July 28, 2006

Georgia rebels threaten to use force

MOSCOW, July 28 (Reuters) - Separatists in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia said on Friday they will use force if Tbilisi sets up a local government headquarters inside their Black Sea region.

Georgia said late on Thursday it would establish Abkhazia's pro-Tbilisi government in exile in the remote Kodori gorge, the only part of Abkhazia not claimed by the separatists but which Tbilisi has until now only loosely controlled.

The pro-Tbilisi government fled Abkhazia during fighting in 1992-93 when the separatists drove out Georgian forces. Based since then in the Georgian capital, it has no real power.

The separatists, who are backed by neighbouring Russia, say Georgian forces are encroaching on their territory and that Tbilisi's next step will be to launch a military offensive to restore its control over Abkhazia.

"If the so-called Abkhaz government in exile is set up in the Kodori gorge that will be a trip wire for tough actions by us and we will have no choice but to use force," separatist foreign minister Sergei Shamba told Reuters by telephone.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, a U.S. ally, says he is committed to bringing Abkhazia back under central control but only by peaceful means.

Abkhazia is one of the so-called "frozen conflicts" that flared when the Soviet Union broke up. Observers fear the tensions could bring a return to fighting, which might also drag in Russian troops stationed in the region as peacekeepers.

"All the indications are that the Georgian authorities are trying to resolve (their) problems ... by force," Interfax news agency quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying.

A new BP-led pipeline, which will eventually pump a million barrels of oil a day to world markets, passes through Georgia.

Saakashvili announced that the government in exile would move to the Kodori gorge after his security forces said they had defeated a local paramilitary gang that had effectively controlled the thickly wooded mountainous area for years.

The northern part of the gorge has until now been a lawless no-man's land. A formal ceasefire deal between Tbilisi and the separatists, struck in 1994, ceded control of the northern part of the gorge to the Georgian government.

But up to now Georgian police and officials have had no permanent presence there.

Saakashvili's chief of staff told a news briefing on Friday Tbilisi was "completely immovable" on its plans for the gorge.

"We will defend our country's interests. We have returned Georgian jurisdiction and law to the Kodori gorge and we will do everything possible to ensure that people there are protected and an administration is set up," said Georgy Arveladze.
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