Russia threatens force to protect troops in Georgia: Abkhazia conflict deepens mutual mistrust

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A DAY after calling for greater military co-operation between former Soviet republics, Russia yesterday threatened to use force to protect its troops and military facilities in Georgia, where it is accused of waging an 'undeclared war'.

The warning came in a tough Defence Ministry statement issued in Moscow as the Georgian army claimed to have halted a rebel offensive on Sukhumi, capital of the breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia.

Culturally Muslim, Abkhazians were the last people in the Caucasus to succumb to Russia's imperial expansion in the 19th century. Though reduced to a small minority in their own land by mass deportations under Stalin, they are now resisting Georgian claims on their territory with equal tenacity.

The rebel assault this week on Sukhumi has sharply escalated fighing in Abkhazia and severely strained relations between Moscow and the government of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister.

In an attempt to defuse the Abkhazian and other regional conflicts - and prevent them triggering a wider war - the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, called on Wednesday for a thorough revamp of the Commonwealth of Independent States to strengthen joint security. But the appeal has fallen on deaf ears.

Rather than seeing Russia as a partner, Georgia accuses it of backing the Abkhazian rebels, whose latest assault on Sukhumi has left at least 110 dead. 'The events of the last few days show Russia is increasing the scale of its undeclared war against Georgia,' the Georgian parliament said in a resolution passed on Wednesday.

Russia's mistrust of Georgia is equally deep. It has some 20,000 troops stationed in Georgia, left behind from the Soviet era, but denies any involvement in the conflict. It yesterday accused Georgia of trying to drag it into the fighting and vowed to protect its troops and bases.