Russia sends Defense personnel into Abkhazia

Railways factor into strife
SUKHUMI, Georgia Russia's support for the independence aspirations of the Abkhazia region is a source of growing tension with Georgia, which denounced the latest action as "an aggressive step."

The 300 Russian railway troops arrived Friday and Saturday, said Abkhaz Deputy Foreign Minister Daur Kove. He said they are needed to restore the rail link so materials can be shipped to Sochi, a Russian city on the Black Sea, which is preparing to host the 2014 Olympic Games.

The Russian ministry statement did not specify how many troops had gone to Abkhazia, but said they had been sent at the request of the authorities in the region to restore the railroad and infrastructure.

Russia's only rail link with Georgia is a line that runs along the Black Sea and ends in Abkhazia's main city, Sukhumi. The continuation of the line from Sukhumi to Ochamchira, about 35 kilometers (20 miles) east, is in disrepair. Abkhaz officials said this section will be restored because Ochamchira is the origin of building materials needed for the Olympic construction.

Georgia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze accused Russia of "preparing a beachhead for an intervention." Speaking to journalists in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, he called it "an aggressive step by Russia against Georgia."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, however, was quoted as saying in comments published Saturday that he had personally agreed with Abkhaz authorities that Russia would help restore the railroad, among other things.

"I was personally occupied with this," Putin was quoted as saying by the French daily Le Monde. "We worked out an entire plan of cooperative work: developing energy, building infrastructure. We decided to restore the railroad." He did not say when the plan was agreed.

Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in 1992 after fierce fighting that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union. Georgia rejects the region's independence claim.

Since 2004, when U.S.-educated lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili became Georgia's president, the country has pressed for NATO membership. NATO in April refused to put Georgia on the path to membership but promised to review the decision before the end of the year.

Moscow sees NATO as an extension of the U.S. military and sees sharing a border with the alliance as a threat to its national security.

Putin welcomed a plan by Saakashvili to grant Abkhazia autonomy rather than full independence, according to Le Monde. "I am really counting on the fact that the plan ... will gradually take root, because on the whole it is a good plan."

Russia has been strengthening ties with Abkhazia, where it now has more than 2,500 peacekeeping troops. Georgia has criticized Russia's willingness to communicate directly with Abkhazia, saying the region's matters are Georgia's business.

The tension has escalated in recent weeks.

Georgia, which has said it suspects Russia is using peacekeeping troops as a cover to bring artillery and other equipment into Abkhazia, has flown pilotless reconnaissance drones over the breakaway region.

Russia has denied Georgia's accusation that it shot down a spy drone last month. United Nations observers studied video footage and published a report Monday saying the plane that shot down the drone was a Russian fighter.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would not be able to respond to the report's conclusion until Georgia hands over the video.

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