MOSCOW (Reuters) - Abkhazia is ready to hand over military control to Russia, the foreign minister of Georgia’s separatist region said on Tuesday, in comments likely to further fuel tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi.
Abkhazia, a sliver of land on the Black Sea coast, is the focus of a bitter row between Russia and Georgia’s pro-Western leadership. Western diplomats warn tensions could spill over into large-scale conflict.
Tensions have been rising since Georgia accused Russia of shooting down one of its drones in April over Abkhazia, a claim Russia denied.
Russian soldiers acting as peacekeepers patrol areas between Georgian and Abkhazian forces but handing full military control of the breakaway province to the Kremlin would alarm both the Georgian government and its allies in the West.
“Those 200 kilometers (120 miles), the distance between the Psou and the Inguri rivers, are all Abkhazia. We agree to Russia taking this territory under its military control,” Abkhazian foreign minister Sergei Shamba told the Izvestia newspaper.
“In exchange, we will demand guarantees of our security.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had not received an official request from Abkhazia for its military to take control of the region.
“We have not received any official notice on this subject,” he said.
Georgia lies at the heart of the Caucasus, where a major oil pipeline pumping Asian oil to Europe passes, and is the focus of a tussle for influence between Russia and the United States.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in wars after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.
Last month Russia said it wanted to improve direct ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It has also sent extra soldiers to Abkhazia to counter what it says is a build up of Georgian soldiers in the region.
Abkhazia also says it shot down Georgian spy drones over its territory.
A 1994 United Nations brokered peace deal allows Russia to maintain up to 3,000 soldiers in Abkhazia, a figure Moscow said it would not break.
Georgia accuses Russia of stoking tensions and supporting the separatists. Ex-Soviet Georgia has angered Russia by applying for NATO membership.
Writing by James Kilner; editing by Sami Aboudi