Russia Eyes More Troops in Abkhazia

ReutersAbkhaz soldiers showing metal Friday that they say is debris from a drone.
The Defense Ministry said it could further bolster its peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia, a move that would further anger Georgia and stoke fears of an impending war.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, meanwhile, said the threat of war with Russia remained high, adding that fighting nearly erupted just a few days ago.

The United States dispatched a senior envoy to Georgia over the weekend in an attempt to ease tensions, while the European Union planned to send a delegation of its own on Monday.

Georgia and Abkhazia are at the center of struggle between Russia and the West for influence in the South Caucasus. Russian peacekeepers, which have served in Abkhazia since the region broke away from Georgian control in the early 1990s, are an irritant in Russian-Georgian relations.

The Defense Ministry said late last week that a recent increase brought the number of peacekeepers in Abkhazia to 2,542 -- up from 1,997.

The ministry also accused Georgia of dispatching forces to the area and said any further steps could prompt Russia to increase its forces to the maximum 3,000 peacekeepers allowed under a 1994 agreement.

"All of this is for one purpose -- to keep peace and avoid bloodshed," the ministry said in a statement.

Abkhaz and Russian authorities have claimed that Georgia is preparing for an offensive to take control of the region by force.

Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili rejected those claims, but he said Georgia would respond if attacked.

Saakashvili said Russia and Georgia had been on the verge of war. "I believe that we were very close a few days ago, I think, and this threat persists," Saakashvili said, Interfax and RIA-Novosti reported.

Still, "Georgia is not planning and cannot fight against Russia. We do not even have enough combat-capable units," he said.

On a trip to the region, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza urged Georgia and Abkhazia to jump-start talks to avoid a renewed armed conflict.

"The most important goal of our visit is to stimulate the negotiations," Bryza said in Russian at the start of talks Saturday with Abkhazia's leader, Sergei Bagapsh, in Sukhumi.

Speaking at a news conference in Tbilisi on Friday, Bryza warned Russia against stoking tensions in the region.

"Mediators or peacekeepers don't issue military threats to parties to a conflict," Bryza told reporters.

Georgian officials accused Russia of shooting down a pilotless Georgian spy plane over Abkhazia last month -- a claim Russia denied.

Abkhazia claimed earlier this month that it had downed two more spy planes and said another Georgian spy plane had been shot down Thursday. Abkhaz officials showed off what it said was the wreckage of the latest plane and said it had been carrying an air-to-air missile.

The foreign ministers of Sweden, Poland, Slovenia and Lithuania will travel to Tbilisi on Monday for discussions on the situation in Abkhazia, a spokeswoman for Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. The diplomats will meet with Saakashvili, as well as the prime minister and foreign minister, spokeswoman Irena Busic said.

AP, Reuters