Georgia Denies Military Operation

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgia's foreign minister on Tuesday sharply rejected allegations that a military operation was being planned to take control of a section of one of the country's breakaway regions.

There have been rising tensions over reports that a large column of Georgian forces was moving toward the Kodori Gorge, a section of the separatist region of Abkhazia.

A former Georgian security minister, Irakly Batiashvili, later said gunfire was heard in a village in the area. The account from Batiashvili, now an opposition politician, could not immediately be confirmed, and the extent of the reported fighting was unclear.

The high-mountain Kodori Gorge region is officially under Georgian control, but a local separatist leader this week threatened to reactivate his militia if the government tried to use force in the region.

"We categorically exclude the possibility of conducting any kind of military operation in the Kodori Gorge as well as carrying out any kind of military or police operation on the territory controlled by the so-called de facto leadership of Abkhazia," Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told reporters.

However, he did not exclude the possibility of police action in the Kodori Gorge, saying "we cannot go along with lawlessness, chaos and anarchy."

Abkhazia, in the northwest corner of Georgia, has been de facto independent since it broke away from central government control in a war in the 1990s.

Its leaders seek either independence or absorption into Russia; another breakaway region, South Ossetia, seeks to become part of Russia.

Georgia accuses Russian peacekeeping forces in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia of siding with the separatists. Russia has close ties with both regions' self-declared governments, although it does not formally recognize them.

Tensions escalated this week when Emzar Kvitsiani, who under former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was the presidential envoy in the Kodori Gorge, said he would reactivate a 300-strong militia to resist any Georgian forces. The region's population is about 4,000.

Earlier Tuesday, officials of the Russian peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia claimed a Georgian convoy including armored vehicles and hundreds of armed men was heading toward the Kodori Gorge. The Georgian Defense Ministry declined to comment on the reports.