Georgian minister says Russia arming rebels for war

Georgia Materials 28 May 2008 13:55 (UTC +04:00)

Russia is pushing the rebel Georgian region of Abkhazia towards war with Tbilisi by arming separatist fighters to stop Georgia from joining NATO, a top Georgian minister said in an interview.

"The Russians are forcing the Abkhaz to prepare for war" against Georgia, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told Russia's Kommersant daily.

"Russia is giving them money and weapons for them to fight against us," including by financing the purchase of a Buk-M1 air defence system worth 150 million dollars (95 million euros), he said, reported AFP.

Merabishvili said this was all part of Russia's plans "to guarantee Georgia does not get into NATO" by stirring unrest in the region.

"If there is a war and there is a single shot from the Georgian side, Georgia will never become a member of NATO," he said.

The Black Sea region of Abkhazia broke away from the rest of Georgia in a war in the early 1990s that killed several thousand people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

Abkhazia has since operated as a de facto independent state with strong backing from Russia. Russia last month further boosted ties with the separatists despite strong objections from Georgia.

Tensions have spiked over the downing of a Georgian spy plane over Abkhazia on April 20. A UN report concluded that the drone was shot down by a Russian fighter jet, but Russia denies any involvement.

Georgia is pushing to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, saying this is the only way to guarantee its sovereignty in the face of Russian pressure.

Russia has accused NATO members of contributing to a "destabilising" military build-up in the region by providing military equipment, training and financial support to Georgia.