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Georgia troops wounded in gorge battle

Published: 10:58PM Wednesday July 26, 2006 Source: Reuters

Some Georgian soldiers have been wounded in a remote gorge where troops are battling to crush followers of a rebellious militia leader, President Mikhail Saakashvili's chief of staff said on Wednesday.

"The rebels were the first to open fire," Georgy Arveladze told a news conference. "There are wounded among Interior Ministry troops, but no one was killed."

Arveladze gave no further details about what Georgian officials describe as "police operation" in the Kodori gorge - a gateway to the breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia where the Tbilisi government wants to restore control.

Part of the gorge is controlled by the Abkhazians and part by Georgians separated by Russian peacekeepers.

Rustavi-2 television said that four servicemen had been wounded in overnight clashes.

Georgia sealed off the gorge and sent in troops to detain Emzar Kvitsiani, ex-governor and head of the local militia, after he declared late on Sunday he would no longer obey orders from Tbilisi.

Arveladze ruled out talks with Kvitsiani, whose militia known as Monadire (Hunter) played a key role in preventing Abkhaz separatists from taking control parts of the gorge populated by ethnic Georgians.

Pro-Western Saakashvili, whose elite troops have been trained by US instructors, dissolved the Monadire in 2005 as part of his drive to get rid of regional militias. But most of have refused to disarm.

"We are not holding talks with terrorists," Arveladze said. 

No wider conflict

Georgian officials have promised a swift operation with minimal civilian losses. They have said it would not spill over to territory controlled by Abkhaz separatists, which could spark a wider conflict.

Rustavi-2 said up to 60 Kvitsiani supporters had been seized. The media reports could not be independently confirmed.

Abkhaz separatists, who have enjoyed de facto independence since 1993, fear Tbilisi could use the operation to concentrate forces in the gorge and then use it as a springboard for a sudden strike to win back control of the province.

The gorge was one of the routes Georgian troops took in an unsuccessful attempt to re-establish central control over the rebel region of Abkhazia in 1992-93.

The Kodori fighting comes days after Russia and Georgia traded accusations over a second rebel region of South Ossetia, where a number of bombing incidents prompted Moscow to warn Tbilisi against any attempt to regain control.

Georgian officials responded by accusing Russia of trying to annex its territory and demanding Russia's peacekeepers leave.

Breakaway leaders in Abkhazia appealed to Moscow and the United Nations to condemn Georgia. Russia has urged Georgia to avoid military actions in the sensitive area.