Georgia threatens rebel region

Georgia was teetering on the edge of armed conflict early on Monday as its leadership squared off against the renegade region of Adjara for defying the government's authority.

    Saakashvili has only been president for a few months

    President Mikhail Saakashvili gave Adjara's leader

    Aslan Abashidze until the evening to recognise Tbilisi's

    authority.

    "I am giving Abashidze until tomorrow night for reflection,"

    Saakashvili told reporters at the Ankor Hotel in the coastal town of

    Poti.

    The 36-year-old Georgian leader said he would convene a cabinet

    meeting at which he will propose closing Adjara's borders and

    freezing the financing of Adjara's leaders.

    "No major cargo will enter or leave tomorrow from the territory

    of Adjara," he said.

    Abashidze arrived in Adjara's capital Batumi early on Monday from

    Moscow, where he had been lobbying for Russia's support in his

    standoff with the Georgian leadership

    .

    High alert

    "We will make every effort to resolve this peacefully and

    calmly.

    But we will not be forgiving if these people pass the point of

    no-return... We cannot allow Georgia to break up into pieces"

    Mikhail Saakashvili,
    Georgian president

    Russia - which has a military base inside Adjara - has warned the

    Georgian authorities of "grave and unpredictable consequences" if

    Georgia sends its forces into the region.

    The crisis flared early on Sunday after armed men loyal to

    Abashidze

    blocked Saakashvili and his

    entourage from driving into Adjara, and fired automatic rounds into

    the air over his motorcade.

    Saakashvili turned around and drove to the nearby city of Poti,

    where he convened an emergency cabinet meeting, ordered the military

    onto high alert, and ordered Adjara's airspace shut down.

    In Adjara, where authorities declared a curfew early on Monday

    ,

    there were reports of tanks being mobilised and weapons being handed

    out to civilians, as Abashidze

    warned that Saakashvili was

    planning an armed invasion.

    "We will make every effort to resolve this peacefully and

    calmly," said Saakashvili, who came to power on a promise to bring

    Georgia's wayward provinces back into line.

    "But we will not be forgiving if these people pass the point of

    no-return ... We cannot allow Georgia to break up into pieces."

    Tense relations

    Saakashvili also appealed to the Kremlin to keep its troops at

    the base in Adjara in barracks.

    "A single mistake could lead to

    catastrophe," he warned.

    Meanwhile in Batumi, Abashidze's interior minister urged people

    to form a human shield against any offensive by Georgian forces.

    "I call on all women and children to come out on to the streets

    with their men and defend peace in the republic," said Jemal

    Gogitidze. "They are sending tanks against defenceless people."

    Tblisi wants wayward provinces
    to recognise its authority

    Relations between Tbilisi and Adjara have been tense for years.

    Abashidze runs the region like a personal fiefdom, has withheld

    taxes from the central government and has set up his own security

    force which takes orders only from him.

    The crisis over Adjara was being watched closely in Western

    capitals - not least because Georgia is on the route of a strategic

    pipeline which will soon start exporting crude oil from the Caspian

    Sea to world markets.

    In Strasbourg, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe,

    Walter Schwimmer, said he was "alarmed" at events in Georgia and

    appealed to both sides to "refrain from violence and start a genuine

    dialogue".

    Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke

    away from Tbilisi shortly after the Soviet Union fell apart in

    1991.

    SOURCE: AFP


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