Georgians 'Very Close' to War

ReutersRussian peacekeeping troops manning an anti-aircraft weapon in their camp near Kokhora, Abkhazia, this week.
Georgia is "very close" to a war with Russia, a Georgian minister said Tuesday, citing Moscow's decision to send extra troops to the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia.

"We literally have to avert war," Temur Iakobashvili, the minister for reintegration, said at a news briefing during a trip to Brussels.

Asked how close to such a war the situation was, Iakobashvili replied, "Very close, because we know Russians very well."

Russia has said the troop buildup is needed to counter what it says are Georgian plans for an attack on Abkhazia and has accused Tbilisi of trying to suck the West into a war.

Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze on Monday rejected Russian allegations that his country wanted conflict with Moscow, saying it was not in Georgia's interest to destabilize its booming economy.

"It's clearly not in our interest to destabilize the situation and disrupt such amazing and rapid economic progress by having hostility on our territory," he said in an interview in Tbilisi.

Meanwhile, officials in Abkhazia on Monday showed off what they say is the wreckage of two unmanned Georgian spy planes that were downed over the weekend.

Georgia has denied that any of its planes were shot down, but Russia -- a longtime backer of Abkhazia -- quickly accused Georgia of inflaming tensions by sending the unmanned planes to spy on Abkhaz forces.

The back-and-forth has fueled fears that full-scale fighting could break out involving Georgia, Abkhazia and the strengthened Russian peacekeeping force deployed along the administrative border separating Georgia and Abkhazia.

In Abkhazia's main city, Sukhumi, a senior Abkhaz defense official, Garry Gupalba, showed reporters Monday what he said was debris from one of the planes, which he said was shot down Sunday by Abkhaz surface-to-air missiles. He said the wreckage showed that the plane was of the same Israeli make as another plane that was downed two weeks ago.

"According to our data, this is an unmanned flying object of the same class" as those that were downed earlier, he said in televised comments.

Footage broadcast on Russian state television showed blackened metal wreckage, some of which appeared to have Russian lettering on it.

Georgia, meanwhile, announced that it was withdrawing from a 1995 agreement that coordinated air defenses among defense ministries in 10 former Soviet republics. The move is expected to have little practical effect, since the two countries have not coordinated air defenses in years.

Still, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov again accused Georgia of purposely exacerbating tensions and planning to use military force in Abkhazia.

Abkhazia and another region, South Ossetia, have had de facto independence since the 1990s, and Moscow's long-standing support for the two regions has long angered Georgia. Russia last week augmented its peacekeeping force in Abkhazia.

Russia opposes Georgia's efforts to draw closer to the United States and NATO, saying membership in the alliance would pose a direct threat to Russia.

The European Union said Monday that it was "seriously concerned" by Russia's decision to send more troops to Abkhazia and establish additional boundary checkpoints.

"The EU calls on all sides to refrain from any steps that could increase tensions and urges the sides to take action to rebuild confidence," the 27-nation bloc said in a statement. (Reuters, AP)