No Sign of Any Plan By Georgia to Attack

ReutersGeorgian Interior Ministry troops patrolling the Kodor Gorge, near the border with separatist Abkhazia, on Friday.
KODOR GORGE, Georgia -- Russia says Georgia is massing troops and weapons in this steep-sided valley ready to attack the separatist Abkhazia region, but it does not feel like a place preparing for battle.

On-duty policeman Rozman Loladze and his partner were making plans on Friday to hunt mountain goats with their Kalashnikov rifles. They reconsidered, and stopped off instead at a friend's house for a few shots of vodka and some khachapuri cheese bread.

The remote Kodor Gorge has become the focus for a sharp escalation in tension between Russia and Georgia that has left Western diplomats worrying that it would only take a small spark to ignite a renewed armed conflict.

Moscow said Tbilisi had brought in extra troops, including Defense Ministry forces, 122-mm field guns, mortars and supplies, to mount an operation against the Moscow-backed separatists in Abkhazia. Moscow cited this as its reason for sending in hundreds of extra peacekeeping troops to the region last week.

A Reuters reporter and photographer spent two days last week in the upper part of the Kodor Gorge, the only area of Abkhazia controlled by Tbilisi. Officials did not attempt to impose restrictions on their movements.

The only forces they saw were regular police, Interior Ministry troops and Interior Ministry special forces. These units have been operating in the region for two years as part of what Tbilisi said was a law enforcement effort.

The Interior Ministry troops and special forces were dressed in camouflage uniforms marked with the ministry's initials, and armed with Kalashnikov rifles.


David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters
Children attending class in a school located in the Kodor Gorge on Friday.
The only other equipment in evidence were police patrol vehicles, a handful of KamAZ trucks, and several Soviet-designed UAZ off-road vehicles and Toyota Hilux pickup trucks.

All were marked with Interior Ministry insignia and none had the black-and-white license plates that are standard issue for Georgian Defense Ministry vehicles.

Moscow says there are more than 1,500 armed men in the area. Soso Karchaidze, a head of the local police, said there were 450.

"There has been no change in the number of men," he said. "There are no armed forces [attached to the Defense Ministry] here at all."

The upper Kodor Gorge has been on the front line of a tense standoff between Georgia and Russia since the end of a separatist conflict in which the separatists threw off Tbilisi's control over all but this corner of the region.

Abkhazia is recognized internationally as part of Georgia but runs its own affairs, with support from Moscow. Under a 1994 ceasefire brokered by the United Nations, Russian peacekeepers patrol the conflict zone.

Stretching about 50 kilometers long and 3 kilometers across at its widest point, the upper part of the gorge has no more than 3,000 residents spread around 12 villages.

It is a landscape of snow-topped mountains and thick forests. The few roads are regularly cut off by landslides.

The Reuters reporters saw no more than six or seven armed men gathered in any one place. They saw two Interior Ministry tent camps, each with space for at most 30 people.

Dozens of local residents in the four villages visited by the reporters said they had seen no Georgian buildup.

Azhara, the biggest settlement in the upper part of the gorge, is a collection of about 200 houses, dotted with beehives and surrounded by a narrow mountain pasture where cows graze.

Schoolteacher Tsiuri Kbilashvili said there had been no new troops. "We understand that the situation is very tense, but no one is afraid. We are teaching as usual," she said.

Georgian officials said, however, that they had evidence of Russian re-enforcements. Police chief Karchaidze said his officers had observed an increase in troop numbers and new checkpoints.