TBILISI (AP/Interfax)–Thousands of supporters of Abkhazia’s opposition presidential candidate seized the office of the outgoing president Friday–raising tensions in the breakaway Georgian region nearly six weeks after a disputed–and unresolved–election.
Demonstrators supporting Sergei Bagapsh and his contention that he won the Oct. 3 election stormed the headquarters of outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba in the region’s main city–Sukhumi.
Election officials ruled that Bagapsh won–defeating former Prime Minister Raul Khajimba–and the region’s highest court confirmed his victory.
However–the court overturned the verdict hours later after hundreds of Khajimba’s supporters broke into the court building and allegedly threatened the court’s chief judge.
Amid the turmoil–Ardzinba ordered a new election–a decision Bagapsh has refused to recognize.
Earlier Friday–Bagapsh again claimed victory in a telephone interview with AP.
"We were victorious in the election," he said. "That means that my inauguration as president will take place on Dec. 6."
Footage on Russian television showed people waving Abkhazian flags from the windows and armed men celebrating with champagne and vodka in Ardzinba’s office. Scattered fist fights were seen in the hallways–and several people were reported injured.
A Bagapsh supporter–Robert Taniya–answered the phone in the presidential headquarters and said Bagapsh already occupied Ardzinba’s office.
But Bagapsh denied that in a telephone conversation with The Associated Press. The Interfax news agency reported that Bagapsh appealed to his supporters to disperse and promised to assume the presidency by legal means.
Khajimba and Bagapsh held talks in an attempt to defuse tensions.
Bagapsh told supporters that he has offered to Khajimba to form a coalition government. He said that all the presidential candidates–who were running in disputed October 3 elections–should be represented in the government. Khajimba made no commen’s after talks.
Abkhazia–which has had de facto independence since Georgian troops were driven from the region in 1993–has been in turmoil since the Oct. 3 vote.
Georgia has ignored the election turmoil. Since being elected in January–Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed repeatedly to reign in Abkhazia and South Ossetia–another breakaway region.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said if the situation in Abkhazia takes an illegal turn–"the Russian side will have to take measures necessary for protecting its interests."
"Everyone in Abkhazia must know that the entire responsibility for possible negative consequences rests with Bagapsh and his supporters–who are trying to seize power by force," he said.
"We should remain calm and do maximum we can to preserve peace in Abkhazia? We will take over power with the peaceful means," Bagapsh said.