Tensions Rise Between Russia and Georgia
DON GONYEA, host:
Clashes have broken out in the former Soviet republic of Georgia between government forces and paramilitaries loyal to a local warlord. Georgia claims the rebellion, in a remote mountain gorge, is inspired by its neighbor, Russia, as a plot to destabilize the country. Russia denies the claim.
NPR's Lawrence Sheets reports from Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.
LAWRENCE SHEETS reporting:
Separatist conflicts, mutinies, and warlords have bedeviled Georgia since the breakup of the USSR.
Mr. EMZAR KVITSIANI (Leader, Monadire): (Foreign language spoken)
SHEETS: Emzar Kvitsiani is the newest renegade. After two years of obscurity, he appeared recently in the mountainous Kodori Gorge near Russia's border. In a rambling TV interview alongside 30 men in balaclavas, this newest warlord declared an insurrection against the Georgian government. He made no coherent demands.
President Mikheil Saakashvili said the revolt would be resolutely crushed.
President MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgia): (Through translator) The only issue I can negotiate is about what kind of cells they will have in prison. Everyone who will betray Georgia will be defeated. The president and his team will make their mothers weep.
SHEETS: Georgia sent several hundred special forces troops in trucks to the isolated gorge. Reporters were not allowed to approach the zone, and phone lines were cut. But Georgian reports said weapons fire echoed through the gorge overnight.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
Georgia just held its biggest-ever military exercises. The government nearly tripled its defense budget this year. It says the buildup is needed to deal with threats like regional renegades, and the threat Georgia sees from Russia.
Russia openly backs two pro-Moscow separatist regions of Georgia. Georgian officials accuse Moscow of masterminding this latest insurrection.
Gela Bezhuashvili is Georgia's foreign minister.
Mr. GELA BEZHUASHVILI (Foreign Minister, Georgia): This guy has a criminal record, so he has ties with criminal gangs, you know. I can't exclude that he is hooked by Russians and that they might use him as a sort of provocative tool.
SHEETS: Foreign Minister Bezhuashvili pointed to the warlord's ties to another pro-Moscow renegade leader whom the government crushed two years ago. That warlord is now in exile in Russia.
Moscow, yesterday, condemned Georgia's crackdown and sternly warned Georgia that it would not tolerate instability along its southern border, where the gorge is located. Russia has peacekeepers in Georgia. Officially, they're here to prevent fighting between Georgia and pro-Moscow separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But Georgia says that peacekeepers are just an occupying force to help the Kremlin annex parts of Georgia and restore control over part of its former colonial empire.
Russia has moved 80 tanks to Georgia's border and is holding its own major military exercises there. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.
Mr. SERGEI IVANOV (Defense Minister, Russia): (Through translator) As far as our exercises are concerned, we always have a plan ready for the possible escalation of the situation in the region. Everyone understands that the probability of an unfavorable scenario is very, very high.
SHEETS: Georgian officials point to such statements as evidence that Russia is preparing for military intervention in Georgia. Georgia says Russia wants to retaliate for Georgia's close ties to the U.S. and campaign to join NATO. The current Georgian government is among the staunchest allies of the Bush administration. Georgia has 850 troops in Iraq. And U.S. Marines are training Georgia's military here.
Lawrence Sheets, NPR News, Tbilisi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.