Shevardnadze says conflict is looming: President of Georgia warns of Russian ambitions in the Transcaucasus region

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LAYING red tulips, daffodils and even a brandy bottle with two glasses beside a memorial for the first Georgians shot by Russian troops four years ago, the people of Tbilisi yesterday took a moment to remember a conflict with Moscow that Eduard Shevardnadze, the President, warned was far from over.

Mr Shevardnadze joined the Georgian Patriarch and wounded soldiers from the continuing war against Russian-backed Abkhazian separatists to light candles for the 21 dead at the stone monument in front of the old parliament building gutted in civil war fighting in 1991.

Referring as much to the dangerously escalating Armenian-Azeri war as to Abkhazia, the President said in an interview with the Independent that behind both conflicts was the fact that 'Russia (wants) to stay in the Transcaucasus by all means'.

The former Soviet foreign minister warned that the West was too obsessed by turbulence in Russia and should become more involved in the periphery. He said there was still a real risk that the Caucasus conflict could spill over into a general war.

'The West is right that the most dangerous thing is an unstable Russia,' Mr Shevard nadze said. 'But an unstable Transcaucasus would be an expensive folly. One more little spark will make a big fire. It could be absolutely uncontrolled and involve more and bigger countries.'

Mr Shevardnadze did not name names, but Turkey has warned that any expansion of Armenia's recent invasion of Azerbaijan may trigger more active intervention. On the other side, Armenia has a defensive alliance with Russia and has had quiet support from Iran. Asked about Russian statements that a ceasefire had been reached - contradicted yesterday by both sides and renewed fighting around the Armenian-controlled Azeri territory of Nagorny Karabakh - he simply said: 'people should not tell lies.'

The President blamed much of his and Azerbaijan's troubles on what he described as Russian imperial ambition.

'Unfortunately Russia is doing it very rudely. Russia is also interested in maintaining its army in Georgia. They do not want to negotiate, they just do it,' he said, thumping the table. President Shevardnadze said only pressure from Germany and President Bill Clinton during his talks in Vancouver with President Boris Yeltsin had kept Russian troops in check in the war over the small Black Sea region of Abkhazia.

'What is happening in Abkhazia is planned in Moscow. These are not new plans. The forces want more. These are the known forces that are fighting Yeltsin,' he said. 'They want to keep us under the influence of Moscow alone.'

GANJA, Azerbaijan - Armenian forces launched fierce attacks yesterday against Azerbaijan around the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh, killing at least five Azeri soldiers, AP reports. The Itar-Tass agency quoted the head of Karabakh's State Defence Committee, Robert Kocharyan, as saying that the region was ready for talks with Azerbaijan on the possibility of a ceasefire.

(Photograph omitted)