Georgia seizes ships

TBILISI, Georgia

Georgia said Thursday it had seized two cargo ships visiting its rebel Abkhazia region this week, as it steps up efforts to enforce a naval blockade of the Moscow-backed breakaway province.

The detentions drew an angry response from Abkhazia’s separatist leadership, which warned it could offer a ‘proportional response’ to protect cargo deliveries.

Besik Shengelia, the head of the coast guard department with Georgia’s border police, told AFP the two ships had been seized in Georgia’s territorial waters in the Black Sea on their way to or from Abkhazia.

A vessel operating under the flag of Panama and with a mostly Turkish and Azerbaijani crew was seized on Monday as it carried fuel from Turkey to the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi, he said. The captain of the vessel has been remanded in custody, he said.

On Tuesday, the coast guard seized a second ship operating under the Cambodian flag and crewed by Syrian citizens after it left Abkhazia with a shipment of scrap metal, he said.

Georgian law forbids economic activities in its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia without Tbilisi’s permission and foreigners can face prosecution if they enter the territories without Georgian government permission.

The foreign minister of Abkhazia’s separatist government, Sergei Shamba, told Russia’s Interfax news agency that it would not tolerate continued interference with cargo deliveries to the region.

‘We have warned Georgia that we can take a proportional response and act in the same way. We have the capabilities for that,’ he said. ‘Our patience is not infinite…. If effective measures are taken we will wait. If not, we reserve the right to act accordingly.’

Tensions remain high around Georgia’s rebel regions following last year’s war over South Ossetia, which saw Russian troops pour into Georgia to repel a military attempt to retake the breakaway province.

Russia later recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries and has stationed thousands of troops in both regions.

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