MOSCOW (Reuters) - The leader of the Russian-backed rebel region of Abkhazia on Wednesday threatened to destroy Georgian ships which entered the enclave’s “territorial waters,” Interfax news agency reported.
Tensions between Georgia and Abkhazia in the Black Sea have risen sharply in recent weeks, with Georgia trying to impose an economic and commercial embargo adopted last year in the wake of its five-day war with Russia.
Georgia says it has detained four ships delivering goods to Abkhazia this year, including two within several days of each other late last month.
“I issued an order to our navy to destroy Georgian ships violating Abkhazia’s sea border,” the region’s leader Sergei Bagapsh told Interfax. “This step has been motivated by unending acts of piracy by Georgia.”
Georgia on Tuesday sentenced the captain of a Turkish-operated tanker to 24 years in jail for trying to deliver fuel to Abkhazia. Georgia says it detained the tanker in Georgian waters, but its operator says it was seized at gunpoint in international waters.
Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Tbilisi would hold Russia, which controls Abkhazia’s borders and its coastline under a deal with the region, responsible for any attacks on its ships.
“Abkhazia’s navy does not exist,” he said. “There are no Abkhaz territorial waters, as these waters belong to Georgia. If there is an attack on Georgian ships, Russia would be responsible, not the separatist government.”
Russian borderguard commander Gen. Yevgeny Inchin said on Friday his forces would ensure the safety of merchant ships entering Abkhaz waters, but did not specify how.
Russian military experts say the Abkhaz navy consists of eight boats armed with light guns.
Bagapsh said Russian ships would not be involved in any operations against Georgian ships.
“I want to stress that we are talking exclusively about the Abkhaz navy,” he said. “Russia’s navy is not being used and will not be used to carry out this task.”
Russia needs safe and stable merchant and passenger traffic in the area as it prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, a few kilometers from the Abkhaz border.
Russia recognized Abkhazia and Georgia’s other rebel region, South Ossetia, last August after repelling a Georgian assault on South Ossetia in a five-day war. The regions are shunned by the West.
Abkhaz officials could not be immediately reached for comment. In a statement issued late on Tuesday, Abkhazia said Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was trying to disrupt normal life in the region through the embargo.
“He is the one who has illegally seized ships whose only crime was attempting to bring household goods and construction materials to our ports,” said Nadir Bitiev, a senior aide to Bagapsh.
Additional reporting by Maka Antidze; Editing by Janet Lawrence