Georgia appeals to West as thousands flee fighting

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GEORGIA has appealed to the international community for help in ending renewed fighting in the breakaway region of Abkhazia which, according to officials in the former Soviet republic, has sent 9,000 refugees fleeing from the area.

The worst hostilities since an all-out war five years ago have flared up in the mountainous Black Sea region, reigniting fears that another prolonged conflict could be imminent.

Eduard Shevardnadze's government yesterday called for Russian peacekeepers, the United Nations and the "Friends to Georgia" - a group of Western powers convened to help end the conflict - to intervene.

Abkhazia, which Stalin placed within Georgia's borders, declared its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union and drove Georgian troops out of the region in a 13-month civil war which claimed at least 10,000 lives. Peace talks have remained in deadlock over issues of sovereignty, and the return to their homes of 300,000 ethnic Georgian refugees.

There have been numerous skirmishes, but the latest violence is the most serious. Last week, there were reports from the Georgian capital Tbilisi that 19 Abkhaz militiamen were killed during a Georgian raid on a military post. Refugees fleeing the fighting told Georgian television that Abkhaz troops had burnt down their villages. A platoon commander from the Russian peacekeeping force in the mainly Georgian populated buffer zone in the Gali district reported intensive firing.

The renewal of fighting will serve as a reminder to the world of the fragility of Georgia's stability - a condition which was underlined in February when gunman attacked Mr Shevardnadze's motorcade with rocket- propelled grenades in the second attempt to assassinate him in three years.

Such events are a blow to the 5.5 million-strong country's efforts to establish its credentials as a transport corridor linking Europe with Central Asia, and the route for a pipeline carrying Azerbaijan's oil westwards.

Discussions were underway yesterday between the two sides to secure a ceasefire and convene a meeting between President Shevardnadze and the Abkhaz leader, Vladislav Ardzinba.

The fighting coincides with fresh tension elsewhere in the Caucasus. Last week, 200 armed men took over a government building in Russia's republic of Dagestan. And on Saturday, a Dagestani policeman was killed in a shoot- out in a mountain village with Muslim militants.