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Georgia promises sharp response to Russian railway troops

By Messenger Staff
Tuesday, June 3
President Mikheil Saakashvili
President Mikheil Saakashvili will call his Russian counterpart today to discuss Moscow’s decision to send hundreds of military engineers to repair separatist Abkhazia’s railways.

Tbilisi alleges that the Russian deployment is preparing the ground for the full-scale annexation of the breakaway territory. Moscow says the troops are providing humanitarian aid.

Georgian officials confirmed the planned phone call to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after the National Security Council met yesterday.

Speaking to reporters following the session, Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili said the situation in Abkhazia is grave, promising a “very sharp” response from Tbilisi.

“What is essentially a military intervention is being carried out on the territory of Abkhazia, Georgia,” the foreign minister said.

She said the Georgian government would demand the engineers be pulled out, along with the roughly 1 000 troops Russia deployed in April to reinforce its peacekeeping contingent in Abkhazia.

The national security secretary, Kakha Lomaia, said Tbilisi will give “one more chance to Russia’s new leadership” to reverse then-president Vladimir Putin’s decision to bolster ties with the separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Earlier in the day a formal note of protest was handed to Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko.

“Honestly, I don’t precisely understand why there is so much concern over this,” he told reporters. “Any humanitarian actions, the restoration of bridges or railways, is certainly intended the improve life for the local residents. The better lives people have the less aggressive their feelings will be.”

The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed on May 31 that railroad engineers were dispatched to repair roads and railways as “humanitarian aid” for the separatist enclave. The engineers are under Russian military command and undertake both army and civil engineering projects.

Irakli Aladashvili, a Georgian military expert who publishes a magazine on military affairs, says the troops are more than benign surveyors.

“They’re not common engineers—they’re part of the military… They are important personnel for war.”

There are about 400 unarmed Russian engineers, according de facto Abkhaz foreign minister Sergey Shamba, who told the Interfax news agency that his administration requested the force be sent.

Shamba said the troops will repair the railway to allow rotations of Russian peacekeepers and, eventually, to help move construction material for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the nearby Russia resort town of Sochi.

A US State Department spokesman said Washington is “dismayed” by Russia’s decision, and Georgian officials say the railway troops are readying an invasion.

“No one needs to deploy railway troops to another country’s territory unless a military invasion is being prepared,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze.

Tensions between Georgia and Russia have climbed as Moscow moved to bolster links with separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia and later reinforced its troops in the two territories.

Georgian leaders say the Kremlin’s actions amount to annexation of the breakaway territories, and demand they be reversed. Moscow says it is protecting Russian passport-holders and keeping the peace in the separatist enclaves.