Residents of the rebel Black Sea region of Abkhazia welcomed the arrival of extra Russian troops on Thursday, May 1, as a guarantee of their self-declared independence from former Soviet Georgia.
Russia claims Georgia is massing troops in readiness for an attack on the Kodori Gorge
In the lush province's capital Sukhumi, residents told reporters that troops had begun to arrive on Wednesday and that a convoy of Russian armored personnel carriers had carried dozens of soldiers through the streets of Sukhumi.
"It gives us hope and confidence in the future when such a strong power as Russia declares it will protect the people of Abkhazia," Sukhumi resident Lyobov Shersheria, 72, told journalists.
"Of course, seeing armored personnel carriers in the streets of Sukhumi is not pleasant, but if there is no other way to ensure our security, what else can be done?" she said. "We hope there will not be war with Georgia. We already lost a whole generation of young men."
Russian news agencies reported Thursday that extra Russian troops had begun deploying in an area near the Kodori Gorge, a forested mountain valley controlled at one end by the Abkhaz rebels, who have close links to Russia, and at the other by Georgians.
Russia claims to counter planned Georgian attack
Russian troops have been sent to bolster peacekeepers
Their deployment followed an announcement by Moscow on Tuesday that is was boosting its peacekeeping contingent in Abkhazia in response to what it said were Georgian plans to launch an assault from the Kodori Gorge.
Russia provided no details about how many extra troops were being sent to bolster its force of about 2,000 peacekeepers already deployed under accords in the early 1990s.
Sergei Shamba, the foreign minister of Abkhazia's de facto government, told journalists Wednesday that under the agreements up to 3,000 peacekeepers could be deployed in the region.
He did not give a precise figure, however, for how many new Russian soldiers would be arriving in Abkhazia.
He said the increase was necessary because "the lack of sufficient peacekeeping forces has allowed the Georgian military to move freely in the upper part of the Kodori Gorge."
Russia's move drew strong condemnation from Tbilisi, with Georgia's foreign ministry saying in a statement that it considered the troop increase an "infringement of Georgia's territorial integrity" and "interference in its internal affairs."
The European Union, United States and NATO also raised concern over the move.
Rebel region appreciates military involvement
Troops arriving in the rebel region have been welcomed
But in Sukhumi, which is gearing up for the start of an annual holiday season that sees thousands of Russian tourists descend on its beaches, residents said they appreciated Russia's military support.
"We are counting on the peacekeepers to fulfill their mandate and stand on the frontline dividing the two sides," said one veteran of Abkhazia's separatist forces, who requested anonymity. "But we will also be counting on ourselves if a conflict begins," he added.
The region's Abkhaz minority took control of the province in a war in the early 1990s that left thousands dead and forced more than 250,000 Georgians from their homes.
Now home to about 200,000 people, Abkhazia survives largely thanks to help from Russia, which has provided passports to more than 80 percent of its residents. But its self-declared independence has not been recognized by any country, including Russia.
Tensions rise between Tbilisi and Moscow
Georgia's pro-Western government has repeatedly accused Moscow of attempting to annex Abkhazia and another rebel region, South Ossetia, in order to weaken the country and stymie its efforts to join the NATO military alliance.
Tensions between Russia and Georgia have soared over Moscow's decision last month to strengthen ties with the two rebel regions and over Tbilisi's claim that a Russian fighter jet shot down a Georgian spy drone over Abkhazia on April 20.