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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
Abkhazia 'on verge of war'
Map of Georgia
By Moscow correspondent Robert Parsons

As fighting in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia intensifies, an Abkhaz defence spokesman has said the region is on the verge of a major war.

It's an upsurge in fighting that threatens to ignite the Caucasus from Chechnya in the east to Abkhazia in the west.

Abkhaz separatists in Sukhumi, 1993
Abkhaz separatists won de facto independence in a 1992-93 war
A large force of Georgian partisans, backed by Chechens, claims to be making progress against regular Abkhaz forces.

Reports from Abkhazia say they have advanced to within a short distance of the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi.

The Abkhaz leadership said it might appeal to Russia for help if the Georgian army was to enter their breakaway republic.

So far, that has not happened. The Georgian partisans currently fighting in Abkhazia do not owe allegiance to the Georgian Government and draw their support from the 250,000 Georgian refugees forced out of Abkhazia at the end of the war in 1993.

Key role

For the moment, the Georgian Government is playing down the conflict and insisting it has no intention of involving its troops.

The two sides have been in a state of suspended conflict since 1993, when Abkhaz separatists, backed by Russian forces, succeeded in driving the Georgians out of the province.

Russia's reaction now could be crucial - it played a key role in tipping the balance of the last war in Abkhazia's favour.

Anti-Georgian feeling in the Russian parliament is strong and the Kremlin regularly accuses Georgia, which shares a border with Chechnya, of harbouring Chechen fighters.

For its part, Georgia has added to the tension by giving Moscow three months to pull its peace keeping forces out of Abkhazia.

It accuses them of supporting Abkhaz separatism.

The BBC's Rob Parsons
"Eduard Shevardnadze is coming under growing pressure to make a tough response"
See also:

13 Oct 99 | Europe
UN observers abducted in Abkhazia
05 Jun 01 | Europe
Timeline: Georgia
16 Mar 00 | Europe
The Caucasus: Troubled borderland
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