Georgia's Abkhazia sees Russian base deal in months

16:43, 29 January 2009
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NATO expressed concern

Georgia`s breakaway region of Abkhazia expects to sign a deal within a few months allowing Russia to establish a naval base and an airbase on its soil, a separatist official told Reuters on Thursday.

NATO expressed concern on Wednesday at reports quoting unnamed military sources in Russia as saying Moscow planned a naval base in Abkhazia, one of two breakaway regions Georgia seeks to reclaim. There has been no Kremlin confirmation.

"This is true -- the Russian Federation and Abkhazia are in talks on setting up two Russian bases on Abkhaz soil, proceeding from our treaty on friendship and mutual assistance," Kristian Bzhania, spokesman for the Abkhaz separatist leadership, told Reuters by telephone from the region`s capital Sukhumi.

"The talk is about a naval base in Ochamchira, where a group of Russian Black Sea Fleet warships will be based, and a former airborne troops base in the town of Gudauta," he added.

"We are now talking about this deal being signed, most probably, within the next few months."

Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed Russian military official as saying that the airfield near Gudauta, also known as the Bombara aerodrome, could accommodate around 20 jet fighters, ground attack aircraft and military transport planes.

A spokesman for Russia`s air forces declined to comment.

During Russia`s war with Georgia in August -- when fighting focused on the second rebel region of South Ossetia -- Russia sent its warships to Abkhazia and landed its marines at the site of the projected naval base, Ochamchire.

Georgians spell the port as Ochamchire while the separatists call it Ochamchira.

Russia`s Black Sea fleet is currently based at Sevastopol in Ukraine, a legacy of the Soviet Union. Kiev has told Moscow to withdraw when its lease expires in 2017. Russia hopes to stay on beyond that, but is also exploring other options.

WESTERN ENERGY SUPPLIES

Russia`s crushing of Georgian forces in the five-day war raised concerns in the West about a new Russian assertiveness in its traditional sphere of influence and stirred fears for the safety of energy supplies that run through Georgia.

Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Tbilisi`s rule during wars in the 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow has pledged to deploy bases in both regions to protect them from "a repeat of Georgian aggression."

A naval base at Ochamchire and revival of the airfield could present fresh concern for NATO strategists worried about an assertive Russia`s projecting its military strength beyond its borders.

Abkhazia is close to NATO member Turkey and the Soviet military presence there was a frontline position in the Cold War standoff with the West.

Gudauta hosted Soviet paratroopers and later Russian troops after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Russia said it had withdrawn its forces from Gudauta under the 1999 Istanbul agreement on post-Cold War force reductions in Europe, but Tbilisi said Moscow kept a military presence there in violation of the agreement.

"As for Ochamchira, it may take a year for it to become a fully-fledged naval base," Bzhania said, adding the base had earlier hosted vessels of the Soviet border guard.

He said the port would undergo modernization, including dredging, to "meet the standards of a modern navy and accommodate bigger warships of different types and configuration."

Reuters

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