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Europe

Russia Begins Sending Troops to Georgian Republic

Russia deployed troops Thursday, May 1, to the Georgian separatist zone of Abkhazia, despite Georgia's objections and concern in NATO. Georgian officials said the move is the start of military aggression against Tbilisi.

Russian troops on an armored vehicle

Russia has sent more troops, allegedly peacekeepers, to Georgia's rebel regions

The soldiers "are completing their deployment at their positions in the Tkvarcheli district of Abkhazia," Russia's three main news agencies quoted the Russian Defense Ministry press office as saying.

Troops were setting up camp, defenses and communications, the ITAR-TASS, RIA Novosti and Interfax agencies all reported.

Russian officials have still not released information on exactly how many additional troops are being sent to the separatist Georgian region to bolster the more than 2,000 soldiers already there. The Russians are deployed under accords ending the separatist war between Georgia and the Abkhaz minority in the early 1990s.

The defense ministry stressed that the "total number of Russian peacekeepers does not exceed the numerical limits agreed under international agreements," the agencies reported.

Concern in European Union

Russia's move, to counter what it said was the massing of Georgian troops near Abkhazia and South Ossetia, raised concern in the United States while the European Union has said that any military build-up would not be wise.

"The steps that have been taken [by Russia] and the rhetoric that has been used concerning the threat of force have increased tensions and have undermined Georgia's territorial integrity," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said on Wednesday.

"The allies are unanimous in supporting, endorsing Georgia's territorial integrity and will not recognize or support steps that undermine that sovereignty," he said.

NATO announced at a summit early this month that Georgia would one day become a member of the 26-nation military alliance, in the face of fierce Russian opposition.

Russia objects to NATO moving closer to its borders and is deeply concerned that the breakaway regions could be destabilized by Tbilisi's rapprochement with Moscow's old Cold War-era foe.

Georgia claims that Russia has, over the last three months, strengthened its control over Abkhazia and established direct ties with the local authorities.

The Russian peacekeeping announcement only fuelled problems, said President Mikheil Saakashvili's new "special representative" and top Georgian diplomat, David Bakradze.

Georgians reject Russia's peacekeeping claim

Russian Interior Ministry troops

The build-up in the rebel regions is causing tensions

"It's hard to believe that this is being done for the purposes of peacekeeping, it's rather the beginning of full-scale military aggression," he told reporters. "The Georgian side, as the host country, should be notified in advance and there should be consent from Georgia on any troop deployment, including peacekeepers. We have not been notified."

"Peacekeeping is not strengthened by unilateral steps."

Russia has peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia under an agreement with Georgia from the 1990s following wars in which separatists broke away and established close ties with Moscow.

The Russian defense ministry did not say how many extra soldiers were being sent, but said that 15 new observation posts would be set up on the frontline in Abkhazia. Around 2,000 Russians serve there and a further 1,000 in South Ossetia.

"Any attempt by the Georgian side to resolve the conflicts with force against Russian peacekeepers and also against Russian citizens... will be met with an adequate and tough answer," news agencies quoted the ministry as saying.

No plans revealed for Georgia action

Georgian soldiers in APCs salute during a military parade marking Independence Day in Tbilisi

Georgia has not revealed any plans to retaliate

As the rhetoric escalated, Appathurai said that neither Russia nor Georgia had informed the military alliance of any plans to actually move their forces, although he said Moscow could "technically" do so without notifying NATO.

But he said: "Have no doubt; everyone is watching very carefully what is happening on the ground."

Bakradze said that a UN mission monitoring Georgia and Abhkazia, UNOMIG, "verifies everything" in terms of his country's military deployments. "If there is something on our side, it will immediately be known," he said, adding: "We're not going to move troops."

In a statement on April 21, UNOMIG said that its monitors "did not observe anything to substantiate reports of a build-up of forces on either side."

NATO and Georgian officials have confirmed that alliance ambassadors, in the so-called North Atlantic Council, will travel to Georgia in "coming months" in a show of support for the would-be candidate.

Georgia attempts to defuse situation

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili

President Saakashvili called for an end to the conflict

Georgia appeared to be attempting to prevent the dispute with Russia from further escalating with President Mikhail Saakashvili saying that the country sought an end to the conflict.

In a televised address to the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Saakashvili said: "Georgia wants peace."

Earlier Wednesday, Georgia attacked Russia's plans to boost peacekeeping troops in the two breakaway Georgian regions as the start of "full scale military aggression."

The Georgian Foreign Ministry called the plan an "act of irresponsible provocation," Russian news agency Interfax reported.

The remarks came after Russia's defense ministry announced Tuesday an increase in peacekeeping forces to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in response to what it called aggressive moves by pro-Western Georgia.

"If Georgia puts in place the threats it has made on a number of occasions about the use of force, we would be forced to take retaliatory measures to protect the lives of our citizens," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

EU criticize Russian deployment

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana

Solana is suspicious of the motives for the deployment

The EU leaders called for calm, with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana saying that the bloc would like to "de-escalate the tension."

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are both Russian-dominated regions of Georgia which fought brief separatist wars in the early 1990s and which still reject Tbilisi's rule.

The Georgian authorities insist that the two regions are its sovereign territory and accuse Moscow of supporting the rebels. Most inhabitants of the two regions hold Russian passports.

In the light of rising tensions between Georgia and its two regions over the past week, Russia decided on Tuesday to send more peacekeeping troops into the breakaway provinces.

That decision was "not wise," even if it was in line with peace agreements, Solana said.

OSCE leaders express concern

The banners of the OSCE members

The members of the OSCE have expressed concern

Finland, current chair of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OCSE] expressed concern Wednesday over "increased tension" in Georgia.

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb issued a statement repeating previous concern over Moscow's decision to establish ties with two breakaway regions in Georgia.

Stubb said the April 20 downing of Georgian drone over Abkhazia "and the recent military build-up have considerably increased tension in the region."

He said he had telephoned President Saakashvili and Foreign Minister Lavrov as part of attempts to avert further escalation.

The OSCE was prepared to aid the peace process and supported the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders, the statement said.

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