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Georgia Says It Controls Rebellious Region

By MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI
The Associated Press
Thursday, July 27, 2006; 7:16 PM

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgia's president claimed Thursday that his troops established control over a rebellious region after three days of clashes, but the defiant local leader targeted in the armed operation escaped.

Georgian forces entered Kodori Gorge this week after Emzar Kvitsiani, a former presidential envoy to the region of about 4,000 people, said he was reactivating a local militia he once led.

The gorge is on the southeastern edge of Abkhazia, a province that has been de-facto independent since 1993, when two years of separatist fighting ended. Kodori Gorge had remained nominally under Georgian control.

"As of today Georgia directly controls a very important strategic part of the territory of Abkhazia," President Mikhail Saakashvili said in televised remarks.

"The main phase of the anti-criminal operation in the Kodori Gorge has ended. Practically all the gorge is under the control of the police," Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili said. He later said authorities believe Kvitsiani fled the area.

Saakashvili said Georgia will establish a government of Abkhazia in the gorge. That is certain to stoke fears among separatist leaders that the operation is part of a bid to gain control over the entire province.

Saakashvili, who has vowed to rein in Abkhazia and another separatist region, South Ossetia, insisted his government has no "aggressive intentions" and reiterated his frequent statements that he wants to resolve the dispute through dialogue.

Kvitsiani made defiant comments in footage broadcast on Russia's state-run Channel One television.

"I want to warn Saakashvili, I want to tell my people that they will not break us, and cannot break us," Kvitsiani said in Russian while crouching in tall grass and weeds. Channel One suggested the interview was taped Thursday; it did not say where it took place.

Journalists saw ambulances ferry wounded people out of the gorge, but the number of casualties from the operation is not known.

Russia's close ties to Abkhazia and South Ossetia has strained Moscow's relations with Georgia since Saakashvili's 2004 election. Rumors of imminent Georgian invasion surface frequently, often prompting sharp warnings from Russia.

© 2006 The Associated Press