- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

SUKHUMI, Georgia — Under mounting pressure from Tbilisi, separatist leaders in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia are warning that their armed forces, backed by Russia, are prepared to defend their territory.

“We are ready to fight them, even if they have the support of the Americans,” Abkhazia’s de facto president, Sergei Bagapsh, said in an interview in the capital, Sukhumi. “We have enough weapons, enough soldiers and enough friends to defend our nation.”

Abkhazia, a sliver of land nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, broke away from Georgia amid fierce fighting in 1992 and now has de facto independence.

Since coming to power after the 2003 “Rose Revolution,” Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has stepped up efforts to reassert control over Abkhazia and Georgia’s other separatist enclave, South Ossetia.

Mr. Bagapsh spoke with The Washington Times before the U.N. General Assembly, where Mr. Saakashvili accused Russia of waging a “gangster occupation” with its peacekeeping troops.

Tensions have soared in the region in recent months and particularly since Georgian forces in late July seized the contentious Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia not under separatist control, from a local warlord.

Georgia is establishing a local government in the gorge made up of members of the Abkhazian “government-in-exile,” which supports reunification.

Mr. Saakashvili has promised only “peaceful means” will be used to restore Abkhazia to Georgian control, but Abkhazians fear otherwise.

“We fear that the operation in Kodori was only designed to establish a bridgehead for a wider invasion,” said Sergei Shamba, Abkhazia’s de facto foreign minister.

Renewed conflict in the region would stoke tensions between Washington, which has backed Mr. Saakashvili’s drive to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity, and Russia, which funds the separatist government and has provided passports to more than 90 percent of Abkhazians.

The United States has deployed a small contingent of troops in Georgia to provide military training, and Russia has hundreds of soldiers in Abkhazia as peacekeepers.

Analysts expect tensions could reach critical levels later this year if U.N.-led negotiations on the status of Kosovo result in some form of independence for the Serbian province.

The United States and some other Western governments support autonomy for Kosovo, which has been a U.N. protectorate since mid-1999.

“If the international community recognizes Kosovo, it must do the same for Abkhazia,” Mr. Shamba said. “There are stronger grounds for granting us independence. We fought for our statehood, have survived through sanctions and created democratic state institutions.”

A sun-drenched paradise of palm trees, mandarin groves and sweeping beaches, Abkhazia once drew thousands ofvacationers from across the Soviet Union, but today is largely in ruins.

Along the waterfront in Sukhumi, its once-exclusive hotels lie derelict as the occasional Russian tourists who still venture here sunbathe beside the rusted hulk of a marooned ferry. In the countryside, whole villages have been abandoned.

“In a way, our problem is that we live in such a beautiful place,” Mr. Bagapsh said. “That is why there are those who want to take it away from us.”

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