Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 99

According to Georgia’s National Security Council yesterday, some thirty-five Abkhaz troopers and three Georgian guerrillas were killed in the clashes in Gali district from May 18 through 21. The NSC meeting, chaired by President Eduard Shevardnadze, determined that an 800-strong Abkhaz force “conducting punitive operations against the civilian population” had met with resistance from local Georgian “self-defense groups.” Shevardnadze ordered Georgia’s military and security agencies to support the Georgian refugees’ return to their home villages in Gali district. Defense Ministry troops in western Georgia were placed on combat alert.

Unspecified top Georgian officials telephoned their counterparts in Moscow, including Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, in order to “categorically express discontent over the Russian peacekeeping troops’ passivity.” Shevardnadze hailed a proposal by UN Secretary Kofi Annan to send a 300-strong military unit to Abkhazia to protect the UN Military Observer Mission. Annan’s proposal, officially aired shortly before the eruption of fighting, originated after last February’s kidnapping of four UN observers. Deployment of the unit would somewhat dent Moscow’s peacekeeping monopoly.

The Abkhaz side only acknowledged losing seven killed yesterday. It also claimed to have pushed Georgian guerrillas back “in the direction of” the Inguri river, which forms the demarcation line. This formula obliquely concedes that the Georgian detachments are established on the Abkhaz side of the river. However, Georgian civilians were reported fleeing en masse yesterday across the Inguri from villages not protected by the guerrillas–nor, evidently, by the Russian “peacekeeping force.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry publicly urged Shevardnadze and Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba to hold a Russian-mediated meeting and “normalize” the situation. Moscow’s statement blamed both sides for failing to agree on the repatriation of refugees (an indirect swipe at Abkhazia) and on prevention of “terrorism and subversion in the security zone” (a direct swipe at Tbilisi). The statement’s tenor and the Russian “peacekeepers'” inaction suggest that Moscow remains content to manipulate the conflict as arbiter. This stance, however, will become more difficult to maintain if the Georgian paramilitary force remains entrenched in lower Abkhazia. (Russian agencies, Prime-News, May 21; see also the Monitor, May 19 through 21).