Russian PM visits rebel Abkhazia

SUKHUMI: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went to Abkhazia on Wednesday on his first visit to the breakaway Georgian region since Moscow recognised it as an independent state last year.

Putin had announced earlier that Moscow would spend almost half a billion dollars in boosting its security presence in Abkhazia, in a sign of Russia's commitment to the lush mountainous region on the Black Sea coast.

He started his visit by laying a wreath at a memorial to the victims of the 1992-1993 war between Abkhaz separatists and the Georgian government after the break-up of the Soviet Union, an AFP reporter said.

"Thank you for your bravery and steadfastness," Putin told the local onlookers, who in turn thanked him for Russia's support.

Donning a white coat, he was then shown round a maternity ward alongside Abkhazia's rebel leader Sergei Bagapsh, where two male twins had been born minutes before his arrival.

In honour of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, the pair were named Vladimir and Dmitry.

"This is his first visit" to the region of 250,000 since Russia recognised Abkhazia and fellow breakaway Georgian region South Ossetia as independent following the five-day war with Georgia last August, a spokesman for Putin said.

Sukhumi lies just south of the Russian city of Sochi which is to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in a major event for Russia's prestige. Moscow is keen to prove the region's stability to the world ahead of the Games.

Russia caused an outcry from the West when it recognised pro-Moscow Abkhazia as independent after the August war with Georgia. Only distant Nicaragua has so far followed the Kremlin's move in recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Putin's visit came just days after Russia marked the first anniversary of the Georgia war amid rising tensions between the two countries along the de-facto Georgian border.

Medvedev had for his part made a high-profile visit to South Ossetia at the weekend.

In an interview with Abkhaz media before his visit, Putin announced that Russia intended to boost its security presence in the region amid continued tensions.

"Russia will deploy forces in Abkhazia. We will build a modern border-guard system.... All these measures are additional serious security guarantees for Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Putin said.

"All this will cost about 15-16 billion rubles" (463 million dollars/328 million euros, he added.

Putin said he could not rule out another conflict in the tense Caucasus region as long as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Moscow's arch foe, remained in power.

"Given today's Georgian leadership it is impossible to exclude anything," he said.

But any attempt by Georgia to use force against the two rebel regions would be "far more difficult" following the war last year, Putin added.

Georgia's Reintegration Minister Temuri Yakobashvili lashed out at Putin for his comments.

"I think this has been not only been Georgia's problem for a long time. This is a problem for NATO, Europe and the whole civilized world," he said.

The region was known as a prime holiday destination for Russians and people from other former Soviet republics. But Abkhazia's bloody battle for independence from Georgia reduced the economy to ruins.