FIGHTING between Russian troops and Georgian forces could erupt if Georgia carries out a decision to seize all Russian military hardware on the Transcaucasian nation's territory, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev warned yesterday.
Georgia is currently gripped by a civil war that pits government troops against militants from the independence-minded Black Sea region of Abkhazia. The ruling State Council, seeking to bolster its lagging war effort, voted Saturday to take control of weapons belonging to Russian military units stationed in Georgia.
Such action, however, would be a "flagrant breach" of agreements between Russia and Georgia concerning the division of the former Soviet Army's military equipment, General Grachev said to the Tass news agency.
He urged the Georgian leadership to revoke the decision, or it "may provoke a sharp aggravation of the situation and armed clashes with Russian armed forces." Grachev also ordered Russian troops to resist if Georgian forces attempt to carry out the Tbilisi government's order.
The Georgian civil war has been steadily escalating since government troops moved into Abkhazia in mid-August. Several hundred people are estimated to have been killed during nearly two months of fighting.
On Friday, Abkhazian irregulars drove Georgian forces out of Gagra, a city on the Black Sea coast. Georgian forces responded with heavy aerial bombing. Meanwhile, the leader of Georgia's provisional government, Eduard Shevardnadze, flew to the troubled area to try to calm the situation.
The effort, however, ended in failure, leaving the former Soviet foreign minister embittered. "For the first time in my life I feel at a loss," Mr. Shevardnadze was quoted as telling local reporters. "I don't see any way out.... I cannot say that peace is possible."
Tass over the weekend said Shevardnadze was considering resigning from the Georgian provisional government, which took over after the ouster of former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia early this year. "Events are developing in such a way that not much depends on what I do. My possible resignation can't be excluded," Tass quoted him as saying. The Georgian leader vowed to recapture Gagra if peace efforts failed.
SHEVARDNADZE said the latest Abkhazian offensive could be designed to discredit parliamentary elections in Georgia, scheduled for Oct. 11. But, he added, nothing could stop the vote from taking place. "The elections to the parliament of Georgia will be held in any event and the Georgian state will gain a legitimate authority and legitimate leadership," he said.
Shevardnadze has been harshly critical of Russian and Abkhazian officials for failing to implement a peace agreement reached last month, saying they "treacherously deceived" Georgia.
The Georgian leader has repeatedly warned that the conflict could spill into Russian territory in the northern Caucasus. "If there is no regulation to this conflict, then there is a threat the whole region could be engulfed by war," Shevardnadze said last week in Moscow.