Air Force Chief Backs Abkhazia Base

Air Force chief Alexander Zelin said Thursday that he favored establishing a military base in Georgia's separatist Abkhazia region, in remarks likely to spike already-high tensions between the countries.

Abkhazia's separatist president, Sergei Bagapsh, said this week that he would like a Russian base in the region. Zelin said he approved of the idea.

"If a political decision is made on this score, this would be to the benefit of fulfilling the tasks of air defense," Zelin said, RIA-Novosti reported.

Georgia's Foreign Ministry responded by denouncing Zelin's words as "irresponsible" and warning that such a move would violate international law.

Zelin also said Air Force fighter planes and other air-defense elements would be involved in ensuring security at the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Krasnodar region just a few kilometers north of Abkhazia. It was unclear whether he was seeking to justify Russian bases in Abkhazia as necessary for Olympic security.

But military analyst Leonid Ivashov, a retired top general noted for nationalistic views, made the connection explicit.

"Russia is certainly interested in a military presence in that region ... it would help provide security during the Olympic Games," he said, Interfax reported.

Moscow and Tbilisi each accuse the other side of preparing for aggression in Abkhazia, and concerns are high that the tensions are so aggravated that a small incident could touch off new fighting in the region that has had de facto independence since a 1990s secessionist war.

Russia maintains peacekeeping troops there and has boosted their numbers in recent weeks, saying it aims to protect Russian citizens from alleged Georgian plans to seize control of Abkhazia by force. Georgia alleges that Russia is preparing to annex Abkhazia.