Shevardnadze says Moscow backs rebels

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TBILISI - President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia yesterday accused Russia of backing ethnic separatists in the break- away region of Abkhazia, saying fresh fighting proved that the two republics were locked in armed conflict.

Mr Shevardnadze also warned that he was considering a 'general mobilisation' of forces as fresh fighting, which followed an offensive by Abkhazi separatists, left up to 70 dead and 50 wounded.

In Moscow, the Russian Defence Ministry said the claims of Russian involvement were 'deliberate lies with certain political goals'. The ministry said it had put Russian troops in Abkhazia on a state of alert, but reaffirmed that they 'remained neutral' and uninvolved in the conflict.

In an address to the Georgian parliament, Mr Shevardnadze said Russian troops were backing the rebels in the latest upsurge in the war that has ravaged Abkhazia, an autonomous region of Georgia, for the past eight months and claimed hundreds of lives. 'The events in Sukhumi illustrate that the fighting in Abkhazia is in fact a conflict between Russia and Georgia,' Mr Shevardnadze said.

The war of words came after Georgian forces pushed back an offensive by Abkhazi separatists yesterday which brought them to within striking distance of the Georgian- held Abkhazi capital of Sukhumi.

Mr Shevardnadze, who travelled to Sukhumi late yesterday, said military hardware was being sent to Abkhazian forces from Russia. 'I hope that Boris Yeltsin is not aware of this,' he added.

Georgian officials claimed the Abkhazi separatists were joined by Russian forces which had crossed the Russia-Georgia border. Georgian troops reported seeing 30 Russian T-72 and T-80 tanks, about 20 armoured cars and 12 small artillery units, of which 10 were led by Russian officers.

According to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, Sukhoi-25 planes bombed Georgian positions during the fighting, which was centred on the Nizhny-Eshera region outside of Sukhumi, and the Abkhazian defence ministry said its forces had taken control of a commanding height in northeast Sukhumi. Reporters on the scene described 'dead bodies everywhere'.

Russia has refused to remove 20,000 of its troops deployed in Georgia for fear of losing access to the Black Sea. 'We must do everything possible to keep our soldiers there, otherwise we will lose the Black Sea,' the Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, said recently.

Separately, according to the Georgian military commander, an unidentified submarine surfaced in Sukhumi bay yesterday morning. The vessel was forced to dive after being fired on by Georgian forces.