Russia plans base in Georgia rebel region: report

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia will start building a naval base this year in Georgia’s Black Sea separatist region of Abkhazia, Russian media reported on Monday, a step Tbilisi said would violate its sovereignty.

Russian peacekeepers stand guard at a Russian checkpoint in Karaleti near the town of Gori, west of Tbilisi, September 9, 2008. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

Russia angered the United States and Europe after its war with Georgia last year by recognizing Abkhazia, and the second separatist region of South Ossetia, as independent states and establishing a permanent military presence in both regions.

A naval base in Abkhazia is likely to add to Western concerns that Moscow is flexing its military muscles, including by moving its armed forces back into areas they vacated after the collapse of Soviet rule.

Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency quoted an unnamed official at Russian naval headquarters as saying commanders planned to station vessels at the Abkhaz port of Ochamchire. Russia’s navy could not immediately be reached for comment.

“The fundamental decision on creating a Black Sea Fleet base in Ochamchire has been taken,” Tass quoted the official as saying. “This year we will begin practical work, including dredging, along Abkhazia’s coast.”

Georgian Defense Minister David Sikharulidze said Abkhazia and South Ossetia were sovereign Georgian territory under Russian occupation.

“Any Russian military presence there is illegal. But unfortunately Russia ignores that and continues its illegal policy of building military infrastructure on Georgian territory,” Sikharulidze told Reuters by telephone.

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The report of plans for a base came on the day that NATO decided in Brussels to restore contacts with Russia that were frozen by the military alliance to signal its anger over last year’s war with ex-Soviet Georgia.

The Russian navy has one operational base abroad, in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. Ukraine’s government -- which like Georgia’s leaders are seeking NATO membership -- have said they will not renew the lease on the base when it runs out in 2017.

Russia’s military says it wants to stay on at the base, but has begun exploring possible alternatives.

During Russia’s war with Georgia last year, a group of Black Sea Fleet warships anchored off Ochamchire. They landed Russian marines and sank a Georgian warship.

An official with Abkhazia’s separatist administration confirmed the plan for a Russian navy base at Ochamchire.

“There is a plan to make such a base, but not as an alternative to Sevastapol. It is likely to be an infrastructure base for Russian military boats,” Maxim Gunjia, the separatists’ deputy foreign minister, told Reuters.

“Many things are still to be determined ... It is possible that construction will begin this year. It would be a minor base for water, fuel, other needs. The capacity of Ochamchire bay is not so big.”

Nicaragua is the only other country which has so far recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Additional reporting by Matt Robinson and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Writing by Christian Lowe and Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Charles Dick