Thursday, April 30, 2009

Abkhazia-Georgia border continues to be flashpoint of violence

Russia has helped Georgia's former breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia make their borders more secure, but even with the new measures, people in the two regions say they still don't feel safe on home soil.

A checkpoint in the Abkhazian town of Gali on the border with Georgia came under fire several weeks ago. Abkhazian border patrolmen blame Georgian militants for the shelling. They say the group illegally crossed the border at night and launched a sneak attack.

"In the morning they walked around and found RPG shells at the bus stop nearby," recalls Radik Agrba, deputy commander at the ‘Ingur' checkpoint.

Abkhazia declared independence from mainland Georgia in the early nineties. For more than 15 years it remained a frozen conflict zone. In 2008, after Georgia launched a military campaign against Tskhinval, Russia recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, signing treaties on diplomatic and military cooperation.

Following separate terrorist attacks in the capital Sukhum last year, Abkhazian officials ordered the border with Georgia to be blocked, blaming Tbilisi for organizing them.

The situation at the checkpoint in Gali remains tense, but locals say it is possible to get into Georgia - but not for sight-seeing. Despite recent incidents the border remains open for those traveling for humanitarian reasons, such as family events and medical emergencies. Many locals have relatives abroad, so they have to cross this bridge every once in a while.

The Gali district is the only territory of Abkhazia where ethnic Georgians are a majority. Over 60,000 refugees returned to the region in recent years.

Local resident Avtandil Ezugbaya is the headmaster of the school in Gali. His wife Liya recently gave birth to their son Luca. The family hopes to share the good news with their relatives in mainland Georgia.

"After the war the ties were broken, but not all ties. He's still in touch with his relatives, but he wants to see them more often. Politics are politics, but he'd like to restore all human ties," says Avtandil Ezugbaya.

Officials in Gali say they would be glad to make the border more open for civilians and harder for criminals to cross, but it cannot be done without Russia's help. A deal to allow both sides to modernise their checkpoints is a long-awaited agreement, says Ruslan Kishmaria, a presidential envoy to the Gali district.

"There were attacks every day and the district needed this treaty like air and water. And they've been waiting for the treaty for a very long time," says Ruslan Kishmaria.
It is expected that Russia will provide training for Abkhazian officers and the latest technology for the checkpoints. And that in turn, may help minimize the terrorist threat, making life in Gali safer and more peaceful.

Russia Today