Georgia says "very close" to war with Russia

BRUSSELS Tue May 6, 2008 7:45pm EDT

1 of 8. Georgian Interior Ministry troops keep watch at a checkpoint in Upper Abkhazia, May 1, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Russia's deployment of extra troops in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia has brought the prospect of war "very close", a minister of ex-Soviet Georgia said on Tuesday.

Separately, in comments certain to fan rising tension between Moscow and Tbilisi, the "foreign minister" of the breakaway Black Sea region was quoted as saying it was ready to hand over military control to Russia.

"We literally have to avert war," Temur Iakobashvili, a Georgian State Minister, told reporters in Brussels.

Asked how close to such a war the situation was, he replied: "Very close, because we know Russians very well."

"We know what the signals are when you see propaganda waged against Georgia. We see Russian troops entering our territories on the basis of false information," he said.

At a banking event in Madrid, Vice Finance Minister Dimitri Gvindadze said the Georgian economy was holding up despite the tensions. However ratings agency Fitch said a conflict would likely hit Georgia's ratings but not immediately Russia's.

"Obviously if we have an unfreezing of the conflict that will be extremely negative for the country (Georgia) and would lead to negative ratings action," Fitch's Edward Parker told Reuters in London.

Georgia, a vital energy transit route in the Caucasus region, has angered Russia, its former Soviet master with which it shares a land border, by seeking NATO membership.

Russia has said its troop build-up is needed to counter what it says are Georgian plans to attack Abkhazia, a sliver of land by the Black Sea, and has accused Tbilisi of trying to suck the West into a war -- allegations Georgia rejects.

Tensions have been steadily mounting and escalated after Georgia accused Russia of shooting down one of its drones over Abkhazia in April, a claim Russia denied.

An extra Russian contingent began arriving in Abkhazia last week. Moscow has not said how many troops would be added but said the total would remain within the 3,000 limit allowed under a United Nations-brokered ceasefire agreement signed in 1994. Diplomats expect the reinforcement to be of the order of 1,200.

SECURITY GUARANTEES

Russian soldiers acting as peacekeepers patrol areas between Georgian and Abkhazian forces but handing full military control of the breakaway province to the Kremlin would alarm both the Georgian government and its allies in the West.

"Those 200 km (120 miles), the distance between the Psou and the Inguri rivers, are all Abkhazia. We agree to Russia taking this territory under its military control," Sergei Shamba, "foreign minister" of Abkhazia, told Russian newspaper Izvestia.

"In exchange, we will demand guarantees of our security."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had not received an official request from Abkhazia for its military to take control of the region.

Iakobashvili urged EU states to take a more active role in the region, with options including the deployment of border monitors or a police mission.

Diplomats said EU President Slovenia was studying sending a delegation at the level of state secretaries to Georgia as a gesture of solidarity, but a number of ex-communist EU states were insisting it should be a full-fledged ministerial visit.

(Additional reporting in Moscow by James Kilner; Editing by Dominic Evans)