Tbilisi Withdraws Some Troops From Gorge

APBoys waving to Georgian soldiers riding in a truck on Saturday in the mountainous Kodori Gorge near Abkhazia.
TBILISI, Georgia -- The Georgian government over the weekend pulled out some of its troops from a gorge on the edge of the breakaway province of Abkhazia following an operation to quell a rebel militia.

A Russian peacekeepers' chief said Georgia retained a sizable force in the area, however.

Georgian television stations broadcast the footage of troops leaving the Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia that remains under nominal Georgian control. Imedi television said 100 troops pulled out from the gorge Saturday.

Major-General Sergei Chaban, in charge of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia, said Georgia only pulled out about 8 percent of its forces from the gorge, Interfax reported.

Georgia's Interior Ministry said Friday that its forces had taken firm control of the gorge and were hunting down some 70 holdout militia members, and that 25 other militia members or supporters of militia leader Emzar Kvitsiani had been seized. Kvitsiani remained at large Sunday, and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said he had fled to Russia.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said unspecified foreign secret services had backed Kvitsiani in the hope of destabilizing Georgia.

"Those who staged this provocation hoped to set up an alternative government in Georgia," he said in televised remarks late Saturday.

He ordered Merabishvili to strengthen counterintelligence operations. "It would be good to hit these secret services in the nose here in Georgia," he said.

Merabishvili reported to Saakashvili that the situation in the gorge had stabilized after the operation and the government had begun ferrying food supplies to local residents. He said authorities had arrested 11 wanted criminals, confiscated large weapons arsenals and freed several slave laborers in the area.

On Sunday, the Tbilisi City Court upheld prosecutors' request to keep Irakli Batiashvili, the former security minister who now leads the opposition party Forward Georgia, in custody for two months. Batiashvili, who was arrested Saturday, rejected the official treason charges based on a telephone conversation with Kvitsiani.

"The charges against me are absurd and based on an illegally tapped phone conversation that was doctored," Batiashvili said in court.

The rest of Abkhazia has run its own affairs without international recognition after separatists drove out Georgian government troops in a war in the 1990s.

Saakashvili ordered a permanent headquarters for a "legitimate government of Abkhazia" to be set up in the Kodori Gorge, saying that construction work would start in a few days.

Separatist authorities in Abkhazia denounced the plan as a "provocation." They urged the United Nations to condemn the Georgian deployment to the gorge.