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Europe

Georgia Talks of War as Tensions with Russia Escalate

President Mikhail Saakashvili said Thursday, May 8, that Georgia had come "very close" to war with Russia and the "threat remained" for a breakout over its breakaway region of Abkhazia.

A Russian helicopter is seen landing in the town of Ochamchire in Georgia's separatist region of Abkhazia.

Russian peacekeeprs continue to arrive in Abkhazia, angering Georgia further

"If anyone wants to annex a part of Georgia, there will inevitably be consequences," Saakashvili told Russian journalists, though he stressed a desire to return to diplomacy.

Russia's military announced early Thursday that would increase its troops in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia to counter Georgia's accumulating military forces in the contested region.

"All this is done for the sake of only one thing: preserving peace and avoiding bloodshed," read a statement by the defense ministry.

Frayed Georgian-Russian relations have long led to sparks in Abkhazia, the autonomy of which has been defended by Russian peacekeepers since a ceasefire ended a civil war in 1994.

But Moscow and Tbilisi's growing inclination to resort to action over their differences have ignited concerns in the European Union and the United States that the standoff is "close to war."

Concerned by the bellicose tones coming out of the region, a Swedish official said Thursday that the foreign ministers of Sweden, Poland, Slovenia and Lithuania will travel to Georgia to discuss tensions with Russia over the breakaway Abkhazia region.

Russia's peacekeepers in Abkhazia will increase to 2,542 troops, under the maximum permitted of 3,000 as provided for by the UN ceasefire.

"The prolongation of the peacekeeper's mandate by the UN Security Council in April 2008 is a graphic confirmation of the need for a presence in the conflict zone," the ministry's statement said.

Georgia's defense minister denies talk of war

But Georgia's defense minister on Thursday denied his side had moved more troops to the region's border.

"Georgia is not a country which went mad and decided to be engaged in a war with Russia," Defense Minister David Kezerashvili said. "Georgia does not build up anything and does not build up anything near the conflict zones. All our soldiers are staying at their bases."

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili

President Saakashvili's words of war have been denied

The latest Russo-Georgian military accusations exploded when Tbilisi accused a Russian fighter jet of shooting down one of its spy planes over Abkhazia. Moscow denied involvement and said the flights broke UN regulations.

Abkhaz rebels declared Thursday that they had shot down a second Georgian drone over the region.

Tensions have since escalated over Moscow's security objection over its post-Soviet neighbor's bid to join NATO last month.

While Russia has long provided Abkhazia support and most citizens in the region hold Russian passports, Putin angered Tbilisi last month by announcing the start of formal diplomatic and economic ties with the Abkhaz government.

Georgia decried the move as the "de facto annexation" of its territory and called for international support.

The United States on Thursday came down in favor of Georgia's pro-Western government.

"Obviously we're very concerned what Russia is doing in Georgia, in a series of actions which we have labeled and said are provocative," said Stephen Hadley, a national security advisor to the US president. "We think Russia needs to back down from those items," Hadley said.

Russia, US tensions to escalate over expulsions

New Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

New Russian President Medvedev faces stern tests

Relations between the United States and Russia are set to sour further after Russia asked two US military officials attached to the US embassy in Moscow to leave the country Thursday, a US official confirmed.

"We object to this action but we'll comply with the Russian government's request," Edgar Vasquez, a spokesman at the US State Department, told reporters. US officials said they did not know the reason for the expulsion.

They could not confirm reports that over the past six months, the US has asked two Russian diplomats to leave the United States.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry refused comment on the expulsions of the US military attaches.

The news emerged at a vulnerable moment in US-Russian relations, as new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spent his first day in office.

Tension has also risen between the US and Russia over US plans to base missile defense in Europe. Washington has also been a critic of former President Vladimir Putin's alleged crackdowns on democratic institutions and civic organizations.

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