Russia: April 12, 2002


Four military and four civilian Russian helicopters landed in the Georgian-held village of Azhara on 12 April, deploying around 100 blue-helmeted, body-armored troops and supplies to build a checkpoint. 

The Russian defense ministry officially denied the Georgian reports of an armed landing in Azhara, saying that its peacekeeping troops were merely setting up an agreed observer post two kilometers (one mile) west of the village. The 78-man post would provide for the safe return of refugees from the south to the north of Kodori gorge, prevent a new outbreak of armed confrontation between Georgians and Abkhazians, and help joint patrolling of the gorge by peacekeepers and U.N. observers

This move escalated tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow, with Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze warning that his troops would shoot if the Russians failed to pull out. It also spread panic in Azhara in the Kodori gorge region, according to Georgian lawmaker Iveri Chelidze. 

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's envoy to Kodori, Emzar Kvitsiani, cited unconfirmed reports that 40 armed Georgians had seized one of the helicopters. Shevardnadze had asked the Russian troops to leave and the request had been passed up the chain of command. He expected them to pull out by the morning of the 13th. Other Georgians had already seen the Russian troops begin to pack their bags.

The Kodori Gorge is a no-man's-land on the edge of Georgia's rebel Abkhazia region, which claimed de facto independence from Georgia and fought a short but bitter war in the early 1990s. A ceasefire was brokered in 1994, but little progress has been made since in resolving the dispute. Abkhazia is supported by Moscow.

Russian peacekeepers had already come under the most intense attack for years in an overnight 6-7 April gun battle, when persons unknown fired on three observation posts and three reserve groups. The Russians accused a group of drunken Georgians of initiating the fight. Abkhazia claims that the violence on its borders is a precursor of large-scale military action and that Tbilisi will inevitably invade with it's U.S.-trained troops . - Adam Geibel


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