The threat, made in a statement by the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, followed an announcement by Georgia's ruling State Council on Saturday that it was taking control of Russian military hardware on its soil. The council, headed by the former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, said it needed Russian arms in order to launch an offensive against rebels in Abkhazia along the Black Sea.
The fighting in Abkhazia began seven weeks ago but has escalated dramatically since Friday, when separatists captured a Georgian government stronghold, the resort town of Gagra, and several nearby villages. Georgia has vowed to recapture lost territory, sending in SU-25 bombers and helicopter gunships to attack the captured area.
Warning of all-out civil war in a region once favoured by Soviet officials for seaside holidays, Mr Shevardnadze threatened on Saturday to mobilise 40,000 reservists to battle the rebels. He has also threatened to resign. 'A tragedy has happened,' he said during a visit to the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi. 'The most terrible thing is that for the first time in my life I feel at a loss. Now I don't see any way out.'
On Saturday, a helicopter carrying Mr Shevardnadze and fellow Georgian officials is said to have been nearly knocked out of the sky by an unmarked military helicopter and later fired upon by a gunboat. Georgia's Deputy Prime Minister, Alexander Kavsadze, called the incidents a 'terrorist attack against the Georgian leadership'.
According to the Interfax news agency, more than 500 Georgian troops have been either killed or wounded in the recent fighting. Abkhazians, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, make up only 18 per cent of the population in their own territory but are being supported by mountainous tribes across the border in Russia.
The flare-up in Abkhazia shatters a fragile peace accord brokered by Russia's President Boris Yeltsin, threatens to disrupt elections scheduled in Georgia later this week and, most dangerous of all, risks pushing Moscow into direct military involvement.
Defence Minister Grachev yesterday described Georgia's plans to seize Russian military hardware as a 'flagrant breach of earlier accords' and said his troops would resist any such move. 'This unilateral decision . . . may provoke a sharp aggravation of the situation and an armed clash with Russian military units.'
The Russian government, vulnerable to attack from nationalist groups embittered by Moscow's rapid retreat from empire, has more than a million troops still stationed in newly independent republics. It has pledged to protect not only soldiers but some 25 million ethnic Russians living outside its borders.
Last week Moscow rushed reinforcements to Tajikistan, where, according to one local official, 4,000 people have died in fighting between rival Islamic clans. Though nominally neutral, the Russian troops are widely accused of favouring supporters of Tajikstan's ousted Communist president Rakhmon Nabiyev.
Another trouble-spot for Moscow is the Baltics, where Russians complain of discrimination. Here too Russia has taken an increasingly firm line. The Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, yesterday warned of sanctions and other unspecified measures to protect the interests of Russian residents.Reuse content