TBILISI - Russian helicopters
landed dozens of heavily-armed
troops in a remote gorge in
Georgia on Friday, sparking a
diplomatic showdown just weeks
before U.S. military instructors
were due to arrive in the
Moscow said it had sent forces to the Kodori gorge, a mountainous no-man's
land on the edge of Georgia's rebel Abkhazia region, to help maintain security
for Russian and U.N. observers under an agreement brokered earlier this month.
But Georgia said there was no mention of armed Russian troops in the
agreement, and warned its forces would shoot if the Russians did not leave.
"We gave the Russians an ultimatum: these helicopters should quietly leave the
Kodori gorge, or we will open fire," Defence Minister David Tevzadze told
reporters in the Black Sea port of Poti, where he was overseeing military
President Eduard Shevardnadze left for the gorge and said he could demand the
end of a Russian peacekeeping mission in his country.
"I am going there to deal with the situation. If what they are telling me is true,
then we will say goodbye to the Russian peacekeepers," he told Reuters before
boarding a helicopter.
Russia's NTV television showed footage of heavily armed Russian
peacekeepers in blue helmets carrying supplies and taking up positions near
the mountain village of Azhara.
A spokesman for the Russian force, wearing camouflage body armour, told the
station his troops were there "above all to guarantee the security of the local
population...and set up joint patrols of the CIS peacekeepers and U.N.
U.S. INSTRUCTORS EXPECTED
The Russian deployment comes ahead of the arrival of the U.S. instructors, on
a mission to provide Georgia with counter-terrorism training and arms.
Georgia's Abkhaz rebels say the U.S. military aid could tip the balance against
them in their decade-long conflict with Tbilisi, and have called for Russian
Moscow seethed at news earlier this year that the U.S. instructors were coming
to Georgia, although President Vladimir Putin later withdrew Russia's
objections, acknowledging Moscow could do nothing to prevent the American
Russia maintains a peacekeeping force in Abkhazia under the umbrella of the
post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States and the United Nations has a
small, unarmed observer team there.
The Kodori gorge on Abkhazia's edge was to be demilitarised after Georgia's
1992-93 war in Abkhazia, but Georgia sent troops last October after a Chechen
warlord turned up there. Georgia agreed to withdraw its troops on April 2.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement the Kodori post, to be manned by
78 troops, was being set up "in the context of fulfilling the Georgia-Abkhaz
protocol of April 2".
That protocol called for the withdrawal of Georgian forces from the gorge and for
joint U.N.-CIS observer patrols, but made no mention of an armed Russian
force, Georgian Defence Ministry spokeswoman Nino Sturua told Reuters.