Abkhazia moves to flush out Georgian troops

The Associated Press
Saturday, August 9, 2008; 11:06 AM

SUKHUMI, Georgia -- Separatist forces in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia launched air and artillery strikes to drive Georgian troops from their bridgehead in the region, officials said.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said later Saturday that Georgian forces rebuffed the Abkhazian attacks. "Our men there are in high spirits," he said.

The Abkhazian move was prompted by Georgia's military action to regain control over another breakaway province, South Ossetia, which began Friday, said Sergei Shamba, foreign minister in Abkhazia's separatist government.

He said that Abkhazia had to act because it has a friendship treaty with South Ossetia.

Both regions have run their own affairs without international recognition since splitting from Georgia in the early 1990s and have built up ties with Moscow. Russia has granted its passports to most of their residents.

Shamba said Abkhazian forces intended to push Georgian forces out of the Kodori Gorge. The northern part of the gorge is the only area of Abkhazia that has remained under Georgian government control.

Georgia's Security Council secretary Alexander Lomaia said that Georgian administrative buildings in the Kodori Gorge were bombed, but he blamed the attack on Russia.

In 2006, Georgian forces moved into the upper part of the Kodori Gorge to root out members of a defiant militia. Georgia later established a local administration made up of people who fled the fighting in Abkhazia.

Abkhazian and Russian officials have said they believe Georgia intends to launch an offensive from there to retake Abkhazia and demanded the withdrawal of Georgian troops from the area.

Shamba said the Abkhazian forces had to act because diplomatic efforts to settle the dispute over Georgia's presence in the gorge had failed. "Georgian forces in the Kodori Gorge posed a real threat," Shamba said.

© 2008 The Associated Press