Russia retreats from separatist Georgian area

U.N., officials had opposed supposed security mission

April 14, 2002|By Maura Reynolds | Maura Reynolds,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MOSCOW - A day after launching what it called a peacekeeping operation, Russia retreated yesterday from a volatile buffer zone near the separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia after sharp protests from Georgia and the United Nations.

Russian officials had said they moved into the upper Kodori Gorge on Friday to re-establish a security checkpoint. But a day later, they said their "patrolling" had been completed.

Georgian officials had denounced the Russian operation as an invasion. The U.N. observer mission in the region described it as "aggressive" and "combative" and demanded an immediate withdrawal.

A spokesman for the U.N. mission confirmed last night that the Russian withdrawal had concluded.

The upsurge in tension occurred as U.S. military trainers are preparing to arrive in Georgia to help arm and train the Georgian army. The American forces had been expected to arrive last month.

To defuse the situation, Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin spoke by telephone yesterday.

The incident "must not cause a radical exacerbation of relations with Russia," Shevardnadze said afterward.

The Russian commander, Maj. Gen. Alexander Yevteyev, insisted that the operation in the Kodori Gorge, in the buffer zone near separatist Abkhazia, had not violated a peacekeeping protocol signed by Russia and Georgia on April 2, and he said similar patrols will follow.

Russian commanders said yesterday that the peacekeepers had been fired on during their brief deployment in the upper Kodori Gorge, and the commanders blamed Georgia for failing to withdraw all its forces from the region as required under the April 2 agreement.

"According to the provision, Georgian troops should have been withdrawn from the upper and the lower part of the Kodori Gorge by April 10 of this year," Yevteyev said.

Shevardnadze's envoy to the separatist region, Emzar Kvitsiani, denounced the Russian accusation as "an invention."

Under the agreement, Georgian units were obliged to depart from the gorge last week to clear the way for U.N.-monitored peacekeeping patrols. The U.N. observer mission said it had warned the Russians in advance that the operation in the upper Kodori Gorge would violate the agreement.

Maura Reynolds is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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