Yeltsin's Georgia peace mission

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN is preparing to knock Georgian and Abkhazian heads together at peace talks in Moscow later this week to prevent an already bloody squabble in the Caucasus from turning into a full- scale war that could engulf Russia. He will insist that Georgia withdraws troops from its rebel Black Sea region while Abkhazia must disband its resistance forces.

The President's intended stand at a meeting he is due to have on Thursday with Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze and the Abkhazian leader, Vladislav Ardzinba, was revealed yesterday when one of Russia's deputy premiers, Georgy Khizha, met leaders of various small Caucasian nationalities in the south Russian town of Armavir. Extremists among the Caucasians of Russia have been helping the Abkhazians, although Mr Yeltsin has appealed to them not to get involved in the Georgia's internal conflict.

On Saturday hopes were high that the fighting might be over as the Georgians and Abkhazians agreed to a ceasefire and an exchange of dead and wounded. But within hours the killing resumed and each side blamed the other for attacking first.

Yesterday heavy battles were reported in a gorge outside the coastal town of Gagra and near the Gumista River north of the region's capital, Sukhumi. Abkhazian casualty figures were not given but Russian television said at least 35 Georgians had been killed, adding to the overall death toll of more than 100 since Tbilisi sent its troops in on 14 August.

Mr Shevardnadze, facing his worst crisis since he took over in his native Georgia earlier this year, refuses to pull the troops out of Abkhazia as long as the separatist uprising continues. 'Georgian forces are on their own territory. Let no one forget that,' he said curtly. The Abkhazians refuse to talk about peace as long as the troops remain and say that, along with their Russian Caucasian allies, they will fight a guerrilla war from the mountains if the Georgians press home their military operation.

Although he and Mr Shevardnadze have co-operated in the past, both being liberals in the old Communist context, the Georgian leader could object if he starts to sense any 'imperialist' interference from Russia. Yesterday, however, Mr Shevardnadze told his State Council that he placed great hopes on the Moscow negotiations.

Russia's relations seemed to be improving with its northern neighbours, the three Baltic states. A Russian Foreign Ministry official said yesterday that Mr Yeltsin would propose to Lithuania's President Vytautas Landsbergis that former Soviet troops pull out of Vilnius next year instead of in 1994, as Moscow had wanted.

If Mr Landsbergis accepted the scheme, it could work equally for Latvia and Estonia. The Baltic states have been pressing for the earliest removal of their former oppressors but the problem is that Russia has nowhere to house the home-coming troops.

Protesters yesterday stormed the palace of Tajikistan's President, Rakhmon Nabiyev, and took several government officials hostage, Russian news agencies said, Reuter reports.

Itar-Tass said hundreds of demonstrators were demanding President Nabiyev's resignation and the release of an army general suspected of involvement in the assassination of a senior judicial official in the former Soviet republic last week. The opposition is critical of Mr Nabiyev for failing to stop a tribal conflict in the Central Asian republic.