Georgia started what it termed an anticrime operation the area of its breakaway region Abkhazia after militia leader Emzar Kvitsiani said on Sunday he did not recognize Tbilisi's rule. He said Georgian troops were moving into the area to disarm former members of his Hunter border guard battalion, which was formally disbanded in 2005, although most members refused to lay down their arms.
Georgian presidential chief of staff Giorgi Arveladze said the operation had been successful although Kvitsiani and his supporters had managed to escape, and that the Interior Ministry would give a reward of $55,000 for information leading to the capture of Kvitsiani, who used to be a Georgian presidential envoy in Abkhazia.
Arveladze said a woman had been killed in a shootout between police and the "bandits" after Kvitsiani entered a village in the gorge, adding that the operation had been stopped to avoid further civilian casualties.
Earlier in the day about 40 relatives of Kvitsiani gathered to protest in front of the Georgian parliament, demanding that the authorities end the operation. They threatened to give up their Georgian citizenship and leave the country if this did not happen.
Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili told Georgia's Rustavi-2 television over the phone from the Kodori Gorge that troops would stay in the troubled Kodori Gorge for the time being to complete the "mopping-up of criminals from the area."
Okruashvili said Tbilisi had re-asserted its authority in the area, and added that Georgian security forces had taken control over all towns and villages in the gorge, where several tons of weapons and ammunition had been seized.
Okruashvili also said Kvitsiani had led the rebellion of a local militia group "on the orders of some outside force."
The Kodori Gorge in northern Georgia is the de facto boundary between the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia and the Georgian-controlled territory. The gorge is cut off from the rest of Georgia due to a lack of infrastructure and transportation, as well as its mountains and forests.
President of Abkhazia Sergei Bagapsh warned Wednesday that anyone attempting to cross the republic's border would be shot on sight.
"We will shoot to kill [anyone] crossing Abkhazia's border by even one meter," Bagapsh said.
The breakaway region declared independence in 1992, which led to a conflict with Georgia that ended in a ceasefire two years later. Thousands died during the fighting.
General Valery Yevnevich, the deputy commander of Russia's Land Forces in charge of peacekeeping operations, said earlier on Thursday that Russian peacekeepers in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict zone had been ordered to open fire in the event of a deliberate attack on their positions.
"We [the peacekeepers] are acting under the mandate, agreements, and the Russia's military regulations that permit the use of arms in the event of a clear attack on Russian peacekeepers' positions or sentries in the Kodori Gorge," he said.
Yevnevich also said Georgia's actions in the gorge had escalated tensions in the whole Caucasus region and near the borders with Russia.
"With these actions, Georgia has increased rather than alleviated tensions, and it is unclear how all this will end," Yevnevich said.