TBILISI (Reuters)–President Mikhail Saakashvili told the restive Ajaria region on Sunday to submit to Georgian law and disarm militias after rebels blew up two bridges to stop what they said was an imminent Georgian military incursion. Saakashvili said that if Ajaria failed to meet his 10-day deadline–similar to past warnings–he would dissolve its local institutions–remove Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze–and call new elections.
Saakashvili had earlier held a session of the Security Council in response to the explosions cutting Ajaria’s road links with the rest of the country. He returned to Tbilisi after attending military maneuvers north of Ajaria.
"We have decided one last time to give a deadline to Aslan Abashidze," Saakashvili told reporters. "We will give him 10 days to return to Georgia’s constitution framework … restore normal legal activities in the region and begin disarming."
If Ajaria failed to do so–Saakashvili vowed to "dissolve local state bodies and hold new local elections?giving the Ajarian people the opportunity for free choice."
One bridge across the Choloki River serves as the main crossing point into Ajaria–while the second runs through the village of Kakuti–near the border.
Television pictures showed an explosion being conducted at one bridge and the wrecked span of another–with concrete slabs fallen into the river. Hundreds of armed men gathered nearby.
Abashidze–interviewed by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency–said the action was intended to rule out any movement south by Georgia’s military from the site of the maneuvers up the coast. "According to our data–some units of the Georgian armed forces taking part in the maneuvers…set up tents only a kilometer from the border," Abashidze was quoted as saying in the region’s main town Batumi.
Officials–he said–had decided "it was vital to take preventive security measures." The proximity of the maneuvers and statemen’s by the military had "created serious dangers. Military equipment and bases must be withdrawn from the area."
Television has shown tanks and up to 2,000 troops passing through fields in the "Dioskuria-2004" maneuvers–the largest in post-Soviet Georgia–to protect oil pipelines–raid illegal drug producers and evacuate people from crisis zones.
Saakashvili denied there was any plan to move into Ajaria.
"No one is trying to invade Ajaria," he said. "Had we wanted to do so–bridges would not in any event be necessary."
Ajaria is one of three regions operating beyond the control of Georgia’s government but–unlike the others–has not declared independence. Abashidze runs the region as a fiefdom–presiding over armed forces and declining to pay taxes to the budget. Georgia and Ajaria came close to military confrontation in March when Saakashvili was prevented from entering the region during an election campaign. Both sides put forces on alert.
Talks then between the two leaders produced a deal to ease tension–but the agreement has all but collapsed.
Saakashvili–backed by Washington–was elected in January after leading a bloodless revolution that ousted veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze. He has called for the Ajarian leader’s removal–but vows to use only peaceful means.