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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 March 2007, 18:52 GMT
Breakaway Abkhazia votes in poll
By Matthew Collin
BBC News, Abkhazia

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People in Abkhazia, a Black Sea region trying to break away from Georgia since a 1990s war, have voted in parliamentary elections.

Georgia has vowed to take back control of the region and has condemned the polls as illegitimate.

Abkhazia is a key factor in the long-running political conflict between Georgia and Russia.

Russia has expressed support for the separatists' ambitions and backed them both politically and economically.

War-scarred

As he cast his vote, the president of the breakaway region, Sergei Bagapsh, said the elections were being held in a state where there was both an opposition and a free press.

It is very important because these elections will mean that Abkhazia is a self-reliant republic
Female voter

Officials in the capital, Sukhumi, hope the polls will demonstrate Abkhazia has the potential to become an independent democratic country.

In Sukhumi, which still bears the scars of the war more than a decade ago, voters echoed their leader's views and said there should be no return to violence.

"I think this new government should bring peace and stability to Abkhazia because we're a country that survived such a tough war," one woman told me.

One voter said that, for Abkhazia's future, it is really important for it to become a sovereign democratic state.

"It is very important because these elections will mean that Abkhazia is a self-reliant republic," another woman told me.

"For me personally, as an ordinary citizen, it means I have the right to come and make my own choice," she said.

The Georgian government has denounced the polls. It says Abkhazia must remain part of Georgia.

The Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said his generation would not compromise with separatists.

Calm conflict

He said the 250,000 Georgians who fled the war in Abkhazia would not be forgotten.

Georgia regards this as ethnic cleansing. No country recognises Abkhazia's claims to independence but the Abkhaz's Foreign Minister, Sergei Shamba, said he believed this would change.

"International organisations and states are not yet able to recognise our elections because this would also mean recognition of our state," Mr Shamba said.

"But our objective is to show everyone that we meet modern European standards," he said.

While people went to vote, Russian peace-keeping troops and United Nations monitors continued to man their checkpoints and patrol the streets.

Peace negotiations have broken down.

Abkhazia may appear to be calm but it remains a conflict zone.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Abkhazia's President casts his vote



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