Cold War flares again in Georgia's remote Kodori Gorge

The NATO-uniformed soldiers approached their heavily-armed Russian counterparts across the no-man's land in Georgia's remote Kodori Gorge in an eerie replay of the Cold War, dpa reported.

The rare encounter on May 23 between potential antagonists came under clear skies and breathtaking mountain scenery, and was peaceful - this time.

Two Georgian special forces officers wearing US Army-issue desert boots stepped across a half-ruined bridge separating Georgia from its renegade province Abkhazia. The two officers gingerly advanced to a black-and-white barrier covered with barbed wire, and then waved.

A few dozen metres down the dirt road, pair of Russians in combat dress and carrying AK-74 automatic rifles clambered out of a bunker covering the concrete-and-steel-girder bridge.

After some words to the crew of an armoured personnel carrier stationed behind the bunker, the infantrymen slowly approached the roadblock, and the Georgians.

The conversation between Russian servicemen charged with defending the technically-independent nation of Abkhazia, and Georgian soldiers looking to recapture it, lasted for about three minutes.

The conflict between Russia and its client Abkhazia on one side, and Georgia and its ally the US on the other, over places like the Kodori Gorge, captured from bandits by Georgian troops in 2006, is much older.

The frozen Abkhazia conflict began in the early 1990s when the predominantly Muslim Abkhaz, one of the some two dozen major ethnicities in the mountainous Caucasus region, seceded from Georgia in 1993. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands became refugees in the civil war, pitting Orthodox Christian Georgians against Muslim Abkhaz forces backed by Moscow.

The unofficial Abkhazia-Georgian frontier is still tense from from time to time. The most recent shooting took place on May 21 in the nearby Gali district, where gunmen believed to be Abkhaz militia ambushed a pair of buses carrying ethnic Georgians driving from Abkhaz territory towards Georgia proper.

Georgian army troops returned fire. Between five and 10 bus passengers were injured, and both buses destroyed in the ensuing firefight. The incident came on the heels of the April destruction of a Georgian spy drone on the Abkhaz side, by a Russian fighter jet. The UN on Wednesday pronounced the incident an effective Russian act of war.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a pro-Western politician keen on his country's joining NATO, is adamant that sooner or later Abkhazia, a destitute region and scene of ethnic cleansing against Georgians in the early 1990s, must return to Georgian sovereignty.

"We (Georgia) will never give Abkhazia up, it is pure Georgian territory, my grandfather had a house there before the war," Saakashvili said. "We will not compromise on this."

Saakashvili has proposed, repeatedly, Abkhazia return to Georgian control with extensive rights of autonomy, so that the 400,000 or so war refugees, mostly ethnic Georgians currently in temporary housing in Georgian, return home. The Abkhaz have, just as often, ignored the overture.

Russia has been equally adamant in its support to the statelet Abkhazia, handing out Russian passports to the Abkhaz and helping Abkhazia's army track the Georgian remote-control spy planes.

Most recently it moved Russian army howitzers, rocket artillery, tanks, and even a regiment of paratroopers into Abkhazia - all despite a 1993 ceasefire agreement supposedly limiting Russian armed forces allowed in the region to lightly-armed peacekeepers.

Russia former president Vladimir Putin said his country would take whatever steps it deemed fit "to protect Abkhazia from any Georgian aggression."

Saakashvili makes clear Georgia's picking a war with giant Russia would be "suicidal and crazy," despite Russia's "creeping annexation" of what amounts to most of Georgia's coastline.

Since 2003 US Green Beret advisers have been training the Georgian army to NATO standards, turning out disciplined, fit, and well- equipped infantry battalions almost ideally adapted for small scale fighting in the mountain wilderness along the Georgian Abkhaz border.

What is worse for Sukhumi, and irritating for the Kremlin, hundreds more Georgian troops are on the ground in Iraq as US allies, gaining combat experience.

At the Kodori Gorge roadblock the four soldiers, the two Kalashnikov-equipped Russians and two NATO-uniformed Georgians, went back to their fortifications without shaking hands.

On both sides of the stand-off line new sandbags, freshly-cut logs, recently-strung barbed wire and excavated dirt made clear that on the Georgia-Abkhazia frontier, the infantry are digging in deeper.

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