Washington briefing: Russia, Georgia square off over Black Sea traffic to Abkhazia

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Friday September 04, 2009

The Turkish tanker Buket captured at Poti, Georgia.

Washington - Georgia sparked a fresh bout of tensions with Russia after its coast guard boats detained a cargo ship carrying fuel from Turkey to Abkhazia, RFE/RL and other media reported this week.

On September 1 a Georgian court sentenced the Turkish captain of the ship to 24 years in prison on charges of "illegal border crossing" and "smuggling." The ship's operator claimed it was seized at gunpoint in international waters.

In response, Russia pledged to provide naval protection to merchant vessels going to and from Abkhazia to prevent what it called acts of "piracy" by Georgia. And on September 2, the Abkhaz leadership ordered its military to attack Georgian vessels that enter its waters.

Tbilisi considers Abkhazia to be its territory and has detained four other Abkhazia-bound ships in the last year. The Russian-Georgia war fought in August 2008 resulted in the destruction of most of Georgia's naval ships and was followed by Russia's recognition of Abkhazia as an independent country.

Russia has since deployed its forces to guard the de-facto border between Abkhazia and Georgia, and announced plans to build new bases for its air and naval forces in Abkhazia, investing up to $500 million in the new infrastructure.

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