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Russia signs deal to build military base in Abkhazia

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia and the Georgian rebel region of Abkhazia signed a deal on Wednesday allowing Moscow to build a military base on its soil, increasing its dependence on its sponsor and stoking tensions with Tbilisi.

The base will accommodate at least 3,000 Russian land troops, already stationed in the Black Sea territory, for at least 49 years, Abkhaz officials said.

“This agreement creates a foundation for the development of Abkhazia as an independent state”, said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, flanked by Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh, at a signing ceremony in the Great Kremlin Palace.

Moscow recognized Abkhazia in August 2008 after crushing an assault by U.S. ally Georgia on the other pro-Russian breakaway region of South Ossetia in a five-day war.

The regions, which broke away from Georgia in bloody wars in the early 1990s, are almost completely dependent on Russia. Both use the Russian rouble and Moscow has issued most residents with Russian passports.

The new base is one of several that Russia plans to build in the sliver of land, which is near NATO member Turkey, in the near future. The others are for airborne troops and the navy.

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Georgia has decried the plans for a land base as illegal and called it part of Moscow’s “occupation” campaign.

In April 2009, Russia formally took control over the de-facto borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, provoking condemnation from Western powers.

The European Union and Western alliance NATO have repeatedly expressed concern that a Moscow-led military build-up in Abkhazia threatens Georgia’s territorial integrity.

It is also watched with unease by Western powers for its proximity to crucial energy routes which flow to the EU.

Russia also installed land, air and naval troops in the rebel region of 200,000, and started work on several bases which are yet to be completed, causing NATO and the United States to call the moves a violation of international law.

Medvedev said the base would not violate Russia’s international obligations.