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Russian Troops in New Role as Abkhazia Peacekeepers

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the first time since the Soviet Union’s breakup, Russian troops have taken up a new peacekeeping mission in the former empire, deploying 3,000 strong in the disputed territory of Abkhazia.

Under auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and with tacit U.N. approval, Russian peacekeepers will patrol a 32-mile-wide security zone along the Inguri River, the natural border between Georgia and the breakaway republic of Abkhazia.

A Russian-brokered accord, signed by Georgia and Abkhazia last month, calls for Moscow’s troops to provide security for 250,000 returning Georgian refugees who fled last year from battles between Georgia’s government forces and Abkhazian separatist fighters supported by North Caucasian mercenaries.

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Politically, the deployment serves notice to the world that Russia continues to see the former Soviet republics--most of which are still occupied by Moscow troops--as within its sphere of influence.

A company belonging to Russia’s 97th Parachute Regiment, traveling in six light-armored vehicles, rumbled into the main square in Gali, on the Abkhaz side of the Inguri, on Saturday. The troops jumped out of their transports and lined up hurriedly for an official welcome from Russia’s visiting deputy foreign minister, Boris Pastukhov.

“The return of refugees must begin and the task must be done honorably and well,” he told the solemn-faced troops, who, according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, came under fire on their way to Gali from Sukhumi on Friday. The company cheered in reply as about 100 elderly onlookers, mostly Georgians who had stayed on in the town after Gali fell to Abkhazian forces last September, applauded politely.

The atmosphere in Gali, a virtual ghost town, lightened considerably with the Russians’ arrival. The previous week, continued looting by Cossack and North Caucasian mercenaries around Gali had kept townsfolk off the streets. A U.N. observer in the region said Abkhazian authorities have no control over the mercenaries, who reportedly drive truckloads of stolen booty from deserted Georgian houses back to Russia.

As the Russian troops were arriving here, a few hardy refugees, intent on reclaiming their homes, pushed wheelbarrows full of their belongings back toward their houses.

“Everyone here’s very happy that the peacekeepers have arrived--no one will have weapons, so it will be safe,” said Fridon Ekhbaya, 50, a Georgian who returned from Zugdidi last month. His wife and three children plan to return soon. “My house is still standing. But everything that could be carried has been stolen.”

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Questions remain about when refugees from deeper in Abkhazia will be allowed back home.

In a packed public meeting in Zugdidi recently, a refugee asked Dzhaba Ioseliani, the warlord in charge of Georgia’s negotiations with Abkhazia, when they might return to Gagra, the westernmost town in Abkhazia. “Within a year, all refugees will be able to return,” Ioseliani told the attentive audience.

But Vladislav Ardzinba, the Sukhumi-based Abkhazian leader, said: “This is speculation. We can’t allow our enemies to return . . . . It’s a long process that will take 5, 10, 15 years--maybe more.”

Most Abkhazians oppose any return of Georgian refugees, who once outnumbered the 100,000-strong Abkhazian population by more than 2 to 1. Further complicating the situation, many homeless Abkhazian families have moved into empty Georgian apartments.

Georgian and Western officials also privately fear the real task of Russian peacekeepers is not to help return refugees but to reinforce Abkhazia’s de facto independence. Russia favored Abkhazia in the conflict, which has left at least 3,000 dead, and Georgian leader Eduard A. Shevardnadze accepted Russian peacekeepers in a last-ditch hope of bringing peace to his land.

“Georgia has lost Abkhazia,” said a Western diplomat in Tbilisi. “It will take only a couple of major countries (to recognize Abkhazia) for all the rest to follow.”

As part of Russia’s retrenchment in the Caucasus, Moscow’s peacekeeping mission in Abkhazia will be watched closely by Armenians and Azerbaijanis, who for six years have been at war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

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