Abkhazia says Georgian troops pushed from province
SUKHUMI, Georgia: Russian-backed separatist forces in Abkhazia drove Georgian troops out of their last stronghold in the region Tuesday after days of air and artillery strikes, an Abkhaz defense official said.
Deputy Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zaitsev told reporters, "The armed forces of Abkhazia have reached the Georgian border in the Kodori Gorge." Abkhaz forces took down a Georgian flag flying over administrative headquarters in the town of Chkhalta and raised an Abkhaz one, he said.
One Abkhaz reserve officer was killed and two people were injured in the operation to push Georgian forces out of the northern Kodori Gorge, said Apollon Gurgulia, chief of the region's military hospital.
Zaitsev said only local forces — not Russian ones — were involved in the operation to squeeze out the Georgians.
But an AP reporter visiting the village of Chuberi saw 135 Russian military vehicles driving through Georgia en route Tuesday to the Kodori Gorge. Georgian officials said their troops in the gorge were being attacked by Russians.
The operation in the western region comes as Russian troops have pressed into Georgia in an escalating conflict that started last week over another breakaway province, South Ossetia in central Georgia. Both provinces enjoy Russian backing.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said only Georgian police and civilians had remained in the gorge before the operation began, and accused Abkhazia of cleansing the region of ethnic Georgians.
Fleeing Georgians said the entire population of the gorge — some 3,000 people — had abandoned their homes, some so quickly they didn't even have time to grab food or belongings. Many of the homes had been damaged by shelling, they said.
"It feels like an annexed country," said Lasha Margiana, the local administrator in one of the villages in Kodori.
"We left when the shelling started, we don't have food," said refugee Madlena Guarmiani.
Russian troops could be seen roaming the area, deploying around the police station in Zugdidi, near Abkhazia. Still, the mood in Zugdidi was calm, and stores and businesses were open Tuesday.
The foreign minister of the Abkhaz separatist government, Sergei Shamba, said that a U.N. observer mission in the area had been warned of the pending operation and pulled out. The main U.N. peacekeeping office in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi was unaffected by the operation, he said.
Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s, and have since built up ties with Moscow.
In 2006, Georgian forces moved into the upper part of the Kodori Gorge to root out members of a defiant militia. Georgia later established a local administration made up of people who fled the fighting in Abkhazia.
Abkhazian and Russian officials have said they believe Georgia intends to launch an offensive from there to retake Abkhazia and demanded the withdrawal of Georgian troops from the area.
Christopher Torchia in Zugdidi and near the Kodori Gorge contributed to this report.