TBILISI, Georgia – Adzharian forces blew up the three major bridges connecting their recalcitrant province with the rest of Georgia in what their leader said Sunday was a preventive measure against Georgian military action.
The bridge over the Choloki River that forms the internal border with Adzharia was destroyed, footage aired by Russian television network RTR showed. A segment of the bridge still protruded from the Georgian side of the river, but the rest was reduced to rubble.
The destruction cut off all auto traffic and dramatically increased tensions in the volatile region.
Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze called the decision to blow up the bridges in the Kobuleti border region “a preventive measure against the possible attempt of military action by the central Georgian authorities,” Russia’s ITAR-Tass new agency reported.
Abashidze claimed that several Georgian military units set up camp only a half-mile from the border, and plans of a military invasion were published by the media.
On Friday, Georgia launched the biggest military maneuvers in the nation’s history. Some of the exercises, which involved about 2,000 servicemen, were scheduled to occur within two miles of the border separating Adzharia from the rest of Georgia.
Abashidze has repeatedly claimed that Georgia intends to try to seize Adzharia by force and last week declared a state of emergency in advance of the military exercises. He has said in recent days that “if there is aggression, we will react to it in an adequate way.”
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who was observing the naval exercises from a military ship, returned to Tbilisi after learning of the bridge blasts to head an emergency meeting of the country’s security council.
Georgia Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said the meeting would consider responses “against the complete mayhem which is happening in Adzharia as a result of Aslan Abashidze’s paranoia,” according to Interfax.
Some forces participating in the military maneuvers would remain in place after the exercises end Sunday, Bezhuashvili said.
Saakashvili earlier told independent TV Imedi that “illegal armed formations” in Adzharia were responsible for destroying the Choloki bridge. He warned Abashidze to refrain from provocations and emphasized that “Georgian authorities do not plan to use force against Adzharia.”
Adzharian Interior Ministry spokesman David Gergedava confirmed that Adzharian forces detonated two other bridges in the Koboleti region.
Georgia’s president has vowed to bring Adzharia under central government control, complaining that Abashidze has been withholding tax and customs revenues from the central government and repressing opposition. One of Tbilisi’s key demands is that Adzharia dismantle its paramilitary units.
In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry harshly warned Tbilisi that the use of force to resolve the situation would have “catastrophic consequences.”