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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Sends Troops Into Georgia

APGeorgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, third from right, heading to talks Friday with the Russian commander.
A day after launching what it called a peacekeeping operation, Russia retreated Saturday from a volatile buffer zone near the separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia following sharp protests from Georgia and the United Nations.

Russia, which has deployed peacekeepers in Abkhazia since 1994, had moved about 80 troops by helicopter into the upper Kodor Gorge on Friday.

Russian officials said they had gone into the gorge to re-establish a security checkpoint. But a day later, they said their "patrolling" had been completed.

Georgian officials, who said they had not been notified of the troops' deployment, denounced the Russian operation as an invasion. Georgian Defense Minister David Tevsadze, who was attending military exercises in a Black Sea port, said Georgian forces had surrounded the Russian troops. "We have decided to open fire in case of any uncoordinated actions," he told reporters Friday.

The United Nations observer mission in the region described the Russian action as "aggressive" and "combative" and demanded an immediate withdrawal.

A spokesman for the UN mission confirmed Saturday evening that the Russian troops had withdrawn. Georgia's Rustavi-2 television showed footage of the troops boarding civilian planes.

The upsurge in tension occurred as U.S. military trainers are preparing to arrive in Georgia to help arm and train the Georgian army. The American forces had been expected to arrive last month.

To defuse the situation, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone Saturday.

The incident "must not cause a radical exacerbation of relations with Russia," Shevardnadze said afterward.

Shevardnadze had flown to the region Friday evening for talks with the Russian commander, Major General Alexander Yevteyev.

Half of the Kodor Gorge, a buffer zone near Abkhazia, has been controlled by Abkhaz separatists and the other half by Georgian forces. But a UN-brokered protocol signed by Russia and Georgia on April 2 called for the withdrawal of Georgian troops by April 10 and for joint patrols by Russian peacekeepers and UN observers.

Yevteyev insisted that the operation in the gorge had not violated the protocol and he said similar patrols will follow.

The Russian forces, nominally under the control of the Commonwealth of Independent States, "will continue to patrol the lower and the upper part of the Kodor Gorge in compliance with the protocol no less than once a week," Yevteyev said.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's envoy in Abkhazia, Dieter Boden, said Russia did not coordinate its actions with the United Nations and thus violated the agreement, Ekho Moskvy radio reported.

Russian commanders said Saturday that the peacekeepers had been fired on during their brief deployment in the upper Kodor Gorge, and the commanders accused Georgia of failing to withdraw all its forces from the region as required under the April 2 agreement.

"According to the provision, Georgian troops should have been withdrawn from the upper and the lower part of the Kodor Gorge by April 10 of this year," Yevteyev said. "The UN secretary-general's special envoy to Georgia will be informed about the violations."

Shevardnadze's envoy to the separatist region, Emzar Kvitsiani, denounced the Russian accusation as "an invention."

Gearing up for the arrival of U.S. troops, the Georgian military has wrapped up its largest-ever exercises in a Black Sea port.

About 3,000 servicemen from the army, air force and navy took part in the maneuvers in Poti, which included 12 ships donated by Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and Ukraine to replace Soviet-era ships that Russia withdrew from the port after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

The 17,000-member Georgian military has also received aid from the United States in the form of helicopters and support for the border guard force. Boosting that cooperation to a new level, the United States announced in February that it would send military instructors to help train Georgian troops to fight terrorists as part of the international anti-terror campaign. (LAT, AP)