Saakashvili Wants Peacekeepers Out

TBILISI -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Thursday that he would seek Western support for his efforts to replace Russian peacekeepers in the breakaway province of Abkhazia with an international force.

"Russia's presence, the presence of the Russian contingent in the conflict zone is becoming a risk factor," Saakashvili told a meeting with foreign ambassadors broadcast on national television.

"We plan to start intensive negotiations with countries that are Georgia's friends about the expediency of the Russian peacekeeping contingent's presence in the conflict zone," Saakashvili added.

Russia sent peacekeepers to Abkhazia in 1994 after it brokered a deal between Tbilisi and Abkhaz separatists ending nearly two years of war in which thousands of people died and hundreds of thousands were made refugees.

Ever since, Tbilisi has accused Moscow of backing the separatists. The feud over Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, has become the most painful issue in Georgia's relations with Russia.

The fate of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has become a major bargaining chip in Moscow's efforts to prevent Georgia, ruled a by pro-Western government since 2005, from joining NATO.

Georgia wants Russian peacekeepers to be replaced by a Western force. Russia says it has responsibility for the security of its citizens, which now make up the majority of residents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Meanwhile, Western countries on Wednesday called on Russia to revoke moves establishing closer ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

After a UN Security Council discussion of the crisis Wednesday, however, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called the demand by the United States, Britain, France and Germany a "tall order" and said it was "not going to happen."

President Vladimir Putin last week ordered the government to recognize some documents issued by separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and cooperate with those regions on trade and other issues.

Relations took a further turn for the worse Sunday when a Georgian reconnaissance drone was shot down over Abkhazia. Tbilisi blamed Russia, but the Russian Air Force has denied responsibility.

In a statement issued as the council met, the four Western powers said they were "highly concerned" about the move on ties with the breakaway regions, adding: "We call on the Russian Federation to revoke or not to implement its decision."

Asked by reporters to respond, Churkin said, "This is, of course, a tall order, and I think that they themselves understand that this is not something which is going to happen."

Georgia has accused Russia of "creeping annexation" of the rebel territories.

Churkin said Moscow's moves did not constitute diplomatic recognition of the two regions and did not involve enhanced military cooperation with them.

"There is nothing anti-Georgian in those efforts," he said. "Our measures are strictly within the limits of international law, within the limits of legality."

The Western powers said many ideas had been put forward by Georgia and the West for defusing the crisis with Abkhazia. "Such steps could start, but should not end, with the exchange of declarations concerning the nonresumption of hostilities and the return of refugees," they said.

The Western statement took no view on the drone incident but called on both Georgia and Abkhazia to immediately approve an increase in the powers of the 130-strong UN observer mission in Georgia.

That suggestion was supported by Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze, who attended the meeting, which was requested by Georgia.

Churkin repeated Moscow's assertion that the flight contravened a 1994 cease-fire agreement between Georgia and Abkhazia, which bans unannounced military activities, and also violated UN resolutions.

Bakradze dismissed the claim. Video footage taken by the drone "clearly shows a MiG-29 military aircraft, and the only country in the region possessing MiG-29 aircraft is the Russian Federation," he said. Radar records showed the plane coming from and returning to Russia, he added.