Moscow flexes military muscle in threat to Georgia

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Russia and Georgia lurched towards military confrontation yesterday with an announcement by President Boris Yeltsin that Moscow would seize control of a railway through an area of Georgia overrun by rebel forces, writes Andrew Higgins.

Moscow's decision to flex its military muscle in what has become the most volatile region of the former Soviet Union presents a dangerous challenge to the Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, who has vowed to seize all Russian military equipment in the republic and recapture the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Russia, said President Yeltsin in a parliamentary address, will not only stay put in Georgia but strengthen its military presence there in order to gain control of a railway that runs along the Black Sea through Abkhazia. 'We are not withdrawing our troops from there,' President Yeltsin said, 'because it is necessary to exercise control over the railway . . . This will require additional forces'.

The move follows an offensive by rebel forces in Abkhazia, where Georgian troops yesterday suffered another crushing defeat. Interfax news agency reported hundreds of Georgian casualties when rebels overran two villages north-west of the Abkhazian capital, Sukhumi.

The Georgian deputy Prime Minister, Alexander Kavsadze, yesterday blamed Russia for the rout of Georgian forces. He denounced what he called 'the intervention of foreign forces', which led to 'practically the annexation of a part of Georgian territory.' Mr Kavsadze was speaking to reporters on the plane bringing him to Sochi in southern Russia to negotiate the repatriation of Georgian soldiers who fled to Russia.

Last month President Yeltsin helped broker a truce between Georgia and Abkhazia. Its subsequent collapse has prompted charges from Mr Shevardnadze that Moscow had betrayed him and given in to 'reactionaries' within the Russian military.

With only tenuous control of his own military, Mr Shevardnadze will be under pressure to defy what Georgians regard as bullying by Moscow.

Adding to his predicament are parliamentary elections scheduled for Sunday. Mr Shevardnadze originally called the polls to mark a return to relative calm in the republic after the bloody battle to oust its former leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. They now threaten to bring more chaos. Russia has shown little sympathy for the former Soviet foreign minister, and has steadily escalated warnings of confrontation.