By Emil Danielyan
Armenia expressed concern on Wednesday at the escalating tensions in Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia, which have led to the death of at least a dozen local Armenians. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said Yerevan maintains close contacts with “all interested parties” to the Abkhaz conflict in a bid to “alleviate the plight” of the region’s substantial ethnic Armenian population.
He said most of 14 villagers killed Monday night near Abkhazia’s lawless Kodor gorge were apparently ethnic Armenian. The Abkhaz authorities have blamed the bloody raid on the Armenian-populated village of Noa on Georgian and Chechen guerrillas and ordered a partial military mobilization in response to the attacks. Several local Armenians were reportedly gunned down in a similar raid on another village in the area last week.
Speaking during the government’s weekly question-and-answer session in the parliament, Oskanian did not blame anybody for the killings. He said the Armenian authorities are “seriously concerned” about the latest outbreak of fighting in Abkhazia but indicated that they will seek to avoid a confrontation with official Tbilisi, which is under growing Russian pressure to stop harboring “Chechen terrorists.”
“We must be very cautious and vigilant, and should not allow other interested parties to drive a wedge between Armenia and Georgia,” Oskanian told lawmakers. But he did not specify what those forces are.
The Armenian official made the comments as Russian troops headed toward the border with Abkhazia, a lush Black Sea region which has been de facto independent since 1993. The chief of Russia's Border Guards, Col. Gen. Konstantin Totsky, told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the troops were sent to beef up security on the Russian border with the volatile region, the Interfax news agency reported.
Abkhaz officials, meanwhile, claimed their forces had surrounded 200 "terrorists," including Georgians, Chechens, Arabs and Azerbaijanis, in the area around Sugar Head mountain in the Kodor gorge. Russian and Abkhaz leaders have also accused Georgia of bombarding three Abkhaz villages on Monday.
Georgia has denied any involvement. The Associated Press quoted National Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze as saying on Wednesday that intercepted radio transmissions proved that two Russian helicopters and four planes entered Abkhazia from Russia and dropped bombs. The Georgian foreign ministry sent Russia a protest note and demanded the two nations hold a joint investigation.
Later Wednesday, a spokesman from the Abkhazian defense ministry said a new group of 500-700 Georgian and Chechen militants entered the region from Georgian territory.
The tensions were further heightened following the downing Monday in the Kodor gorge of a helicopter carrying four UN observers, three crew members and a translator. All were killed. The UN mission in Tbilisi said in a statement on Wednesday that "both the Georgian and Abkhazian sides bear responsibility for the situation that has developed, creating the conditions for such a cruel deed."