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Caucasus Conflict Deepens As Georgia Plans to Seize Arms From Ex-Soviet Army

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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.

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