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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia Celebration Warns Separatists

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgia marked the anniversary of its independence Monday with a big military display, serving as a warning to separatist groups that control considerable areas of the former Soviet republic.

More than 4,000 troops, escorted by dozens of Russian-built T-72 tanks, surface-to-air missiles and artillery pieces, marched down a main avenue under bright sunshine, past President Eduard Shevardnadze and Defense Minister Vardiko Nadibaidze.

Sukhoi Su-25 fighters screamed over the heads of several thousand spectators lining the parade route.

Georgia became independent in December 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart. But it marks its independence May 26, recalling the foundation of the short-lived Georgian republic in 1918 amid the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. It was gobbled up again by the Soviet empire in 1921.

The ancient Christian kingdom of Georgia united with Russia in the early 19th century, seeking protection from its larger Moslem neighbors, the Ottoman Empire and Persia.

"The restoration of our country's territorial integrity and military readiness is the first obligation of our soldiers and armed forces," Nadibaidze told the troops. "I am sure that with the efforts of our government and its allies, and if necessary through the use of military force, this will be accomplished."

The words were a clear and ominous warning to separatists in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia, with whose secessionist rulers the Georgian government is increasingly losing patience.

After nearly four years, peace talks have reached a dead end, with the Abkhazians still wanting more independence than Tbilisi is ready to tolerate.

The Tbilisi government is also demanding that 2,500 Russian peacekeepers patrolling a buffer zone between its territory and Abkhazia take on a more aggressive mandate, helping refugees from the region resettle and expanding their zone of activity.

Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, says if the Russians refuse, they must leave when their present mandate expires July 31. That raises the prospect of a dangerous vacuum that many observers say could lead to war.

Mountainous Georgia and its population of 6 million has been split into pieces almost since the day it gained sovereignty. As well as Abkhazia, it faces another self-declared state in South Ossetia, on the Russian frontier, although negotiations to end that conflict have shown some progress.

Both areas have run themselves as de facto independent states since waging campaigns against Georgian military units.

Abkhazian irregulars routed Georgian troops in a bloody 1992 to 1993 war which claimed an estimated 10,000 lives.

Police briefly scuffled with several dozen supporters of the late nationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia as the enormous monument was unveiled. The protesters waved anti-Shevardnadze placards and shouted slogans.

Abkhazian leader Vladislav Ardzinba imposed a nightly curfew in his region starting Sunday in an apparent attempt to curb Abkhazia's violent power struggle, The Associated Press reported from Tbilisi, Georgia.

Ardzinba's decree, reported by Abkhazian television and Itar-Tass, forbids any movement of people or vehicles between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Only those possessing special police passes will be allowed on the streets during the curfew, the decree said.

Itar-Tass said the decree apparently came to help Ardzinba deal with the violent power struggle between his region's warlords, political groups and clans, some of which want to change government policies for their own benefit or even topple Ardzinba.