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Tension mounts as Georgia blockades rebel region

By Vladimir Radyuhin

MOSCOW, MARCH 16. The former Soviet republic of Georgia clamped total blockade of its restive province of Adzharia creating a new hotbed of tension in the trouble-hit region.

All air, land and sea routes to Adzharia, which borders Turkey, were closed on Tuesday after its leader rejected an ultimatum from Georgia's new President, Mikhail Saakashvili, to recognise the centre's authority and disarm its paramilitary forces. The Georgian Government also put the army on alert, suspended the licences of banks operating in Adzharia and froze bank accounts belonging to Adzharian officials.

Adzharia in turn declared a state of emergency and began issuing guns to civilian population to defend the province against a possible armed attempt to depose its defiant leader, Aslan Abashidze.

Russia told Georgia to keep its hands from Adzharia, warning the Georgian leadership of "grave and unpredictable consequences" if Adzharia came under attack. Moscow, piqued by Tbilisi's pro-Western stance, has maintained close friendly ties with Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adzharia. Tanks deployed at the Russian military base in Adzharia today began `manoeuvres' on the Black Sea coast, firing shots towards Georgian warships that sealed off the port of Batumi, Adzharia's main source of revenues from transit cargoes.

The crisis broke out on Sunday when Mr. Saakashvili was barred from entering Adzharia with a large group of armed troops. Mr. Saakashvili said he had just planned to take part in an election rally in Batumi, capital of Adzharia. Though Adzharia has never declared formal independence from Georgia, as the other two rebel provinces did, it has pursued a pro-independence policy.

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