Georgia: separatists threaten to use force

Georgian forces this week mounted a large operation to quell a rebel militia in the Kodori Gorge, which is the only part of Abkhazia that remains under nominal Georgian control. The rest of the province has been de-facto independent, run by an internationally unrecognized government, since the end of a separatist war in the 1990s.

Georgia's Interior Ministry on Friday said its forces had taken firm control of the gorge and were hunting down some 70 holdout militia members. It said 25 other militia members or supporters of militia leader Emzar Kvistiani had been seized.

In a challenge to the separatist government, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said late Thursday that Georgia intended to establish a legitimate "government of Abkhazia" in the gorge. Its members would likely to drawn from Abkhazia's government-in-exile, which was formed by those displaced from the territory by the previous decade's fighting.

The separatist president, Sergei Bagapsh, said Friday that Abkhazian forces had been placed on heightened alert, Interfax said.

Abkhazia seeks either independence or absorption into Russia, which has close ties with the separatist government but does not formally recognize it. Saakashvili's repeated vows to bring Abkhazia and another separatist region, South Ossetia, back under central government control have been a consistent irritant in relations between Tbilisi and Moscow.

Russia has peacekeeping forces in both provinces. Georgia accuses the peacekeepers of siding with the separatists.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Malaysia for ASEAN security talks, said Friday that all signs indicate "the Georgian authorities will try to solve the problems in South Ossetia and Abkhazia by force. ... I don't think Georgia has a chance to solve these problems by force," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.