CORRECTION: Russia threatens Georgia with force
(Please note this story moved on April 25. Corrects surname of parliamentary committee head, paragraph 5)
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia warned on Friday it could use military force to protect its "compatriots" in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia if they were attacked.
Valery Kenyaikin, the Russian Foreign Ministry's special envoy for the ex-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) said Moscow was "doing everything to avert a military scenario.
"But if a war is unleashed, we will have to defend our compatriots even through military means. We will use every means to do this, there should be no doubt about this," he told reporters.
Russia's ties with Georgia have been strained for more than a decade by Moscow's support of the two breakaway regions, which threw off Georgian rule after wars in the 1990s and where most of the population have been issued with Russian passports.
Givi Targamadze, head of Georgia's parliamentary committee for defense and security, called the Russian statement a "direct military threat against Georgia."
"This shows that Russia is in an aggressive mood and the international community must realize this immediately. Georgia for its part is prepared to repel any military threat," he told Reuters.
Abkhaz separatists said that Georgian forces were mobilizing at the de-facto border with the rebel region in the Kodori gorge, a gateway to the province.
"In the upper part of the Kodori gorge Georgians brought in eight howitzers and their operating crews," Ruslan Kishmaria, the Gali region representative of Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh, told Reuters.
A source in the Georgian Defence Ministry denied the claims. Tbilisi does not recognize Bagapsh's authority.
Russia and Georgia engaged in a war of words this week over the downing of a Georgian spy drone over Abkhazia, a small stretch of land run by pro-Moscow separatists on the Black Sea coast.
Georgia said a Russian jet shot down the drone in a deliberate act of international aggression. Russia says Abkhaz separatists downed the unmanned aircraft and that the flight itself breached international agreements.
"The Georgian side does not want a negotiated solution," Kenyaikin said. "The language is totally undiplomatic. But apparently the survival of the Georgian leadership is at stake and it does not feel shy using any argument to rally support."
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili faces parliamentary elections next month in which his majority is at risk.
Moscow, angered by Georgia's moves to join NATO and by the West's recognition of Kosovo, last week said it would forge closer ties with the two separatist regions. Saakashvili has vowed to bring them both back under Tbilisi's control.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Europe's main security watchdog, said on Friday it would send a special envoy to Georgia to try to calm tensions after the spy drone was shot down.
"We are quite hopeful things will calm down," Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, whose country holds the OSCE's rotating chairmanship, said in Moscow after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Earlier on Friday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed concern about Russia's announcement intensifying cooperation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"Such activities can make solving this conflict harder," Steinmeier said after talks in Berlin with visiting Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze.
"What matters now is that no provocative actions are taken...which could worsen what is already a tense situation."
Germany's backing is key to Georgia's campaign to rally European states behind it in its standoff with Russia. Berlin attaches importance to maintaining ties with Moscow, a major energy supplier, and has been reluctant to back Georgia's bid for NATO membership.
(Additional reporting Dmitry Solovyov and Chris Baldwin in Moscow, Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Dave Graham in Berlin; Writing by Christian Lowe and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Michael Stott and Jon Boyle)
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