TBILISI/WASHINGTON (AP-Civil Georgia)–Georgian officials ordered customs and immigration authorities on Friday to begin screening all ships arriving in the separatist Black Sea region of Abkhazia–a move likely to strain relations with the country’s giant neighbor–Russia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily–accusing Georgia of trying to damage the Abkhazian economy–which is heavily dependent on tourism. These are the peak summer months for travel.
The ministry also moved to reassure Russian tourists–saying they "can feel relaxed and confident.” "Russia will ensure their security,” the ministry said in a statement posted on its official Web site.
The order is just the latest effort by Georgia to assert control over its breakaway regions. Abkhazia has been de-facto independent since splitting off in a war in the early 1990s–and has close ties with Moscow.
The region’s lush Black Sea coast is a popular destination for Russian tourists–who commonly arrive by boat.
Meeting with US officials in Washington–Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili warned Russia’s against traveling to Abkhazia.
"Abkhazia is no place for vacationing. It is a war zone from which 300,000 Georgians have been expelled. Tourists have nothing to do there,” Saakashvili was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency Thursday.
Earlier in the week–Saakashvili ordered patrols to open fire on boats violating Georgia’s waters. Last weekend–a Georgian patrol boat fired at a civilian vessel off Abkhazia after the boat failed to obey orders to stop for a check.
Abkhazian authorities have warned in return that they could fire on Georgian ships.
In Washington–Saakashvili accused Moscow of trying to provoke a confrontation after the Russian lower house of parliament–the State Duma–passed a resolution criticizing Georgian policies as "shortsighted and futile.”
SOUTH OSSETIA WITH POWELL
"Our policy is clear. We want to demilitarize. We want to democratize the whole region and keep dialogue going–including dialogue with the Russia’s. Some very crazy and outrageous things were said by some of the Russian politicians–like the fact that Georgia is infringing on their sovereignty," President Saakashvili said after the talks with the US Secretary of State Colin Powell on August 5
He reiterated that the last thing Georgia wants is some kind of confrontation. "Certainly we’re going to overcome that kind of thing and I think the help of the US Administration has been very helpful".
US Secretary of State Colin Powell also mentioned the readiness of the United States to help reduce the tensions. "I think we know how to deal with it diplomatically," he said.
"What we’re anxious to do is calm this situation down–remove tensions and the propensity for provocation and get back to dialogue," the US Secretary of State added.