Russian troop movements prompt warning of 'war'

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RUSSIA'S deployment of extra troops in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia has brought the prospect of war "very close", a minister of former Soviet Georgia said yesterday.

Separately, in comments certain to fan rising tension between Moscow and Tbilisi, the "foreign minister" of the breakaway Black Sea region was quoted as saying it was ready to hand over military control to Russia.

"We have to avert war," Temur Iakobashvili, a Georgian State Minister, told reporters in Brussels. Asked how close to such a war the situation was, he replied: "Very close, because we know Russians very well."

"We know what the signals are when you see propaganda waged against Georgia. We see Russian troops entering our territories on the basis of false information," he said.

Georgia, a vital energy transit route in the Caucasus region, has sought Nato membership, angering Russia, its former Soviet master with which it shares a land border.

Russia has said its troop build-up is needed to counter what it says are Georgian plans to attack Abkhazia, a sliver of land by the Black Sea, and has accused Tbilisi of trying to suck the West into a war.

An extra Russian contingent began arriving in Abkhazia last week.

Moscow has not said how many troops would be added, but diplomats expect the reinforcement to be of the order of 1,200.

Russian soldiers acting as peacekeepers patrol areas between Georgian and Abkhazian forces, but handing full military control of the breakaway province to the Kremlin would alarm both the Georgian government and its allies in the West.

"Those 120 miles, the distance between the Psou and the Inguri rivers, are all Abkhazia. We agree to Russia taking this territory under its military control," Sergei Shamba, the "foreign minister" of Abkhazia, told the Russian newspaper Izvestia.

"In exchange, we will demand guarantees of our security."

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Moscow had not received an official request from Abkhazia.

Mr Iakobashvili urged EU states to take a more active role in the region

and EU president Slovenia is reported to be considering sending a delegation as a gesture of solidarity.

Tussle for influence

GEORGIA lies at the heart of the Caucasus, where a major oil pipeline pumping Asian oil to Europe passes, and is the focus of a tussle for influence between Russia and the United States.

After the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in wars that have since been regarded as "frozen conflicts". Last month, Russia said it wanted to improve direct ties with both.

Mikhail Saakashvili, the president, faces an election this month and has staked his future on closer ties with the West. But after his government closed a critical TV station at gunpoint, ordered the beating of protesters and won a presidential vote amid fraud claims, he needs to prove his own democratic credentials.