Russian Troops Enter Georgia Gorge Then Pull Out

AZHARA–Georgia (Reuters)–ussian helicopters anded dozens of heavily armed troops in a remote Georgian gorge on Friday–and Georgia threatened to start shooting if they did not withdraw.

The showdown came as the region awaited U.S. military instructors due to arrive in the ex-Soviet state to train and arm its military on a mission that has infuriated Moscow.

Wearing blue helmets and camouflage body-armor–the Russia’s touched down before midday in the lush mountain Kodori Gorge–a no-man’s-land on the edge of Georgia’s rebel Abkhazia region–and began unloading supplies to build a military checkpoint.

Moscow said it was deploying peacekeepers in the gorge under an agreement brokered earlier this month. But Georgia said the accord made no mention of armed Russian troops.

"We gave the Russia’s an ultimatum: these helicopters should quietly leave the Kodori gorge–or we will open fire," Defense Minister David Tevzadze told reporters in the Black Sea port of Poti–where he was overseeing military exercises.

President Eduard Shevardnadze left for the gorge and said he could demand the end of Russia’s nearly decade-old peacekeeping mission in his country.

"I am going there to deal with the situation. If what they are telling me is true–then we will say good-bye to the Russian peacekeepers," he told Reuters before boarding a helicopter in the capital Tbilisi.

The Russian troops carried sacks of food and other supplies–a sign they planned to stay for some time.

Their mission was "above all to guarantee the security of the local population" and set up patrols of Russian and UN observers–said Igor Konovenkov–a Russian military spokesman traveling with the unit.

Outraged deputies in Georgia’s parliament quickly passed an "appeal to international organizations," labeling the Russian move "aggression against Georgia."

The Defense Ministry said Georgian forces had been put on high alert.

Russia has kept peacekeepers in Abkhazia since separatists drove out Georgian forces in a 1992-93 war. The United Nations also has a small–unarmed observer team there.

The Kodori gorge was demilitarized after the war–but Georgia sent troops last October after a Chechen warlord turned up there. Georgia agreed to withdraw its troops on April 2.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement the Kodori post–to be manned by 78 troops–was being set up "in the context of fulfilling the Georgia-Abkhaz protocol of April 2."

That protocol called for the withdrawal of Georgian forces from the gorge and observer patrols by the Russia’s and the UN team. But it made no mention of an armed Russian force–Georgian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Nino Sturua told Reuters.

The Russian deployment comes ahead of the arrival of the US special forces instructors–on a mission to provide Georgia with counter-terrorism training and arms. No specific date has been set for their arrival–but they are expected soon.

Russian troops that landed in a remote gorge in Georgia on Friday agreed to pull out by the following morning–Shevardnadze said.

"We reached an agreement with the commander and he promised to finish everything tomorrow morning," Shevardnadze said at the airport after returning by helicopter from the remote Kodori Gorge–where he met the commander of Russian peacekeepers.

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