Georgia's Abkhazia sees Russian base deal in months
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia expects to sign a deal within a few months allowing Russia to establish a naval base and an airbase on its soil, a separatist official told Reuters on Thursday.
A senior Georgian member of parliament said the Russian move was in breach of international law. The NATO alliance has already expressed concern at an report earlier this week saying Moscow planned a naval base in Abkhazia.
Tbilisi's pro-Western leaders accuse Russia of effectively annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a second breakaway region that was the focus of Russia's war with Georgia last August.
"The Russian Federation and Abkhazia are in talks on setting up two Russian bases on Abkhaz soil, proceeding from our treaty on friendship and mutual assistance," Kristian Bzhania, spokesman for the Abkhaz separatist leadership, told Reuters by telephone from the region's capital Sukhumi.
"The talk is about a naval base in Ochamchira, where a group of Russian Black Sea Fleet warships will be based, and a former airborne troops base in the town of Gudauta," he added.
"We are now talking about this deal being signed, most probably, within the next few months."
Givi Targamadze, the head of Georgia's parliamentary committee on defense and national security, said Tbilisi would protest Russia's move "at every international level."
"This process goes beyond any international legal limits and standards," he told Reuters.
"It demonstrates that Russia's real goal was never the protection of its so-called citizens in South Ossetia or Abkhazia, but to use these territories for new military bases."
Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed Russian military official as saying that the airfield near Gudauta, also known as the Bombara aerodrome, could accommodate around 20 jet fighters, ground attack aircraft and military transport planes.
A spokesman for Russia's air forces declined to comment. There has also been no official confirmation of the report that Russia is to build a naval base in Abkhazia.
During Russia's war with Georgia in August -- when fighting focused on the second rebel region of South Ossetia -- Russia sent its warships to Abkhazia and landed its marines at the site of the projected naval base, Ochamchire.
Georgians spell the port as Ochamchire while the separatists call it Ochamchira.
Russia's Black Sea fleet is currently based at Sevastopol in Ukraine, a legacy of the Soviet Union. Kiev has told Moscow to withdraw when its lease expires in 2017. Russia hopes to stay on beyond that, but is also exploring other options.
WESTERN ENERGY SUPPLIES
Russia's crushing of Georgian forces in the five-day war raised concerns in the West about a new Russian assertiveness in its traditional sphere of influence and stirred fears for the safety of energy supplies that run through Georgia.
Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Tbilisi's rule during wars in the 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow has pledged to deploy bases in both regions to protect them from "a repeat of Georgian aggression."
A naval base at Ochamchire and revival of the airfield could present fresh concern for NATO strategists worried about an assertive Russia's projecting its military strength beyond its borders.
Abkhazia is close to NATO member Turkey and the Soviet military presence there was a frontline position in the Cold War standoff with the West.
Gudauta hosted Soviet paratroopers and later Russian troops after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Russia said it had withdrawn its forces from Gudauta under the 1999 Istanbul agreement on post-Cold War force reductions in Europe, but Tbilisi said Moscow kept a military presence there in violation of the agreement.
"As for Ochamchira, it may take a year for it to become a fully-fledged naval base," Bzhania said, adding the base had earlier hosted vessels of the Soviet border guard.
He said the port would undergo modernization, including dredging, to "meet the standards of a modern navy and accommodate bigger warships of different types and configuration."
(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi)
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)
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