May 31, 2008 / 4:06 PM / in 11 years

Putin backs Abkhazia autonomy, Russian troops sent

(adds Russia sending railway troops, response from Georgia)

By Gleb Bryanski

PARIS, May 31 (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he approved of a plan to give Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia autonomy but not full independence.

But Georgia accused Moscow of trying to annex the impoverished Black Sea region after Russia sent unarmed troops on Saturday to rebuild a railway in Abkhazia.

Russia called the deployment "humanitarian aid". Georgia said on Friday it had stopped spy plane flights over Abkhazia to quell Western fears that tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow could degenerate into war.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has offered Abkhazia, which broke away in a war in the 1990s, a package that would return it to Georgian control but give it autonomy, the post of vice-president, free trade zones, and seats in parliament.

"I very much hope that the plan that Saakashvili proposed will gradually be introduced because overall it is the right plan," Putin said in an interview with France’s Le Monde newspaper, given on a visit to Paris and attended by Reuters.

"It just needs the other side to agree to it. You need to conduct a dialogue," he said.

Putin’s apparent support was surprising because Moscow backs the separatists. However, his condition that Abkhazia must agree to the plan is unlikely to be fulfilled: the separatists rejected the Georgian plan when it was first presented.

Russian state television broadcast footage on Saturday of columns of military trucks arriving in Abkhazia, where most of the population have been issued with Russian passports.

"We have organised for the restoration of (Abkhazia’s) roads and infrastructure, and have sent unarmed railway troops to carry this out," Russia’s defence ministry said on its Web site

It was not clear whether the railway would bring building materials needed for Russia’s 2014 Olympics in nearby Sochi, or if the infrastructure would be used to facilitate military equipment. Georgia said the move was illegal.

"This is one more aggressive step by Russia against the territorial integrity of Georgia... Annexation of Abkhazia is under way," Georgia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze told reporters in the ex-Soviet state’s capital Tbilisi.

Putin was Russian president until May when he handed over the job to his protege Dmitry Medvedev. Some diplomats hope the handover could lead to a more conciliatory approach towards Georgia, an aspiring NATO member.

Medvedev is expected to hold talks with Saakashvili in Russia’s second city of St Petersburg early next month.


The row over Abkhazia has pitted Russia against Western states that support Georgia and want to see it join NATO.

Abkhazia’s separatists say they will settle for nothing less than full independence from Tbilisi.

Since the start of this year Russia has sent in extra peacekeeping troops to Abkhazia and intensified ties with the separatist administration.

"Nobody needs to deploy railway troops on another country’s territory unless a military invasion is being prepared," Vashadze said on Saturday.

"The annexation of Abkhazia is being carried out in all directions - trade, social, economic and legal."

An unmanned Georgian spy drone was shot down over Abkhazia by what a United Nations report said was a Russian fighter plane. Moscow denied involvement.

Russia says its priority is to prevent bloodshed and protect Abkhazia from possible Georgian aggression. Some observers say its real aim is to punish Georgia for its NATO ambitions and seek revenge for Kosovo’s split from Serbia, which it opposed.

The conflicts over Abkhazia and a second Georgian rebel territory of South Ossetia fuel instability in a region of strategic importance to the West because it is a transit route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea.

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