Georgia Special Operation May Reach Abkhazia

TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgia said on Friday it might use troops trained by U.S. special forces to conduct "anti-terrorism" operations in its Abkhazia region–but it ruled out a military offensive to win back the province.

U.S. special forces instructors are due to arrive in the former Soviet republic this month to train Georgian forces in counter-insurgency operations.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Kakha Sikharulidze said the operations could extend to any part of the country–including Abkhazia–but Georgia had no intention of starting another war.

"Concerning Abkhazia–I am not talking about any kind of military operation–I am talking about special operations which could take place anywhere in our country," he told reporters.

"But an anti-terrorist operation does not mean war with Abkhazia."

The U.S. mission is to train and equip Georgian armed forces to flush out guerrillas with suspected links to the al Qaeda network–who Washington says may be in hiding in the remote Pankisi Gorge.

But the focus has shifted to the possibility that Georgia may use its newly trained troops to make a push for the Black Sea province of Abkhazia–lost to local rebels in a humiliating 1993 defeat.

Abkhazia enjoys the informal protection of Georgia’s northern neighbour Russia–and any operation would bring Georgian troops face-to-face with Russian peacekeepers patrolling the province.

The issue of Abkhazia is a thorny one between Georgia and Russia–and Moscow has repeatedly accused Georgian-backed guerrillas of trying to infiltrate the region.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Friday saying peacekeepers had clashed with an armed group "believed to be Georgians" on the border between Abkhazia and Georgian-controlled territory on Thursday.

"This shows the intent of certain forces in Georgia to inflame the situation in the conflict zone–which cannot but give rise to alarm," the statement said.

Georgia–for its part–said last week Abkhazia had links to the al Qaeda guerrilla group of Osama bin Laden and that Arab nationals had surfaced in the region.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said last week it had U.S. assurances that it did not expect Georgian government troops to fight in Abkhazia or South Ossetia–another rebel province.

Sikharulidze said that promise still held. "The catching of four or five criminals does not mean the beginning of a military operation," he said.

Some 10,000 people died in a 1992-93 war between Abkhaz separatists and the Georgian army after the Soviet Union’s collapse unleashed secessionist wars across the Transcaucasus.

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