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Georgia war was in South Ossetia, but Abkhazia's the prize

ANAKLIA, Georgia — They call themselves the hazelnut refugees.

Earlier this month, while the heaviest fighting of the Russia-Georgia war raged 150 miles away, separatists from Abkhazia, a pro-Russian enclave of Georgia on the Black Sea, burst into the Georgian farming village of Gunmuhuri and raised their flag.

More than half the village fled. But many people couldn't afford to abandon their hazelnut crops, a financial safety net. So dozens of ethnic Georgian families continue to pick nuts on their farms in the daytime — slipping carefully through the groves to avoid Abkhaz soldiers — then cross a narrow river to the Georgian-controlled village of Anaklia, where they spend the nights in the safe company of relatives.

These refugee families find themselves at the center of one of the lingering questions of the two-week conflict: the status of Abkhazia, whose self-declared government, backed by Russia, used the war to grab more territory in western Georgia, and asked Moscow last week to recognize it as an independent state.

Along with South Ossetia — Georgia's other breakaway province, where hostilities with Russia ignited Aug. 7 — Abkhazia declared itself independent nearly two decades ago. On Monday, the Russian parliament recognized the provinces' independence. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili made reintegrating the two provinces a centerpiece of his administration, but that goal appears to have gone up in the smoke of war.

With Abkhazia making a renewed push for statehood, the fates of hundreds of ethnic Georgian families' are uncertain. Will Abkhaz authorities hand back villages such as Gunmuhuri to Georgia? Or will they try to redraw the border, forcing many Georgian families to flee?

"All along, Abkhazia has wanted to take this area," said Natia Chikobava, a 25-year-old refugee who crosses to and from Gunmuhuri daily to harvest hazelnuts. "The war gave them their chance."

Georgian officials said the separatist army seized 13 Georgian villages and a hydropower plant that were inside a "buffer zone" demarcated by a 1994 cease-fire, extending Abkhazia's boundary south to the Inguri River. Residents of Gunmuhuri said Abkhaz troops used Russian aerial bombings as cover and established a base in their village, manned by several dozen soldiers.

Abkhaz officials described the operation as a "security measure" and left the door open to returning the borderline villages to Georgian control.

"Maybe when quiet returns, there will be an adjustment," Slava Chirikba, an adviser to the de facto Abkhaz president, said by telephone from the provincial capital, Sukhumi.

Tensions have flared repeatedly between Georgia and Abkhazia, which fought a bloody civil war in the early 1990s, and before this month many analysts figured that it was there, not in South Ossetia, that fighting would restart.

Russia has long sponsored the Abkhaz regime in the hope of annexing the ruggedly beautiful region, once a favored vacation spot for Soviet leaders. Roughly the size of Delaware, it boasts a 150-mile Black Sea shoreline and lies just 25 miles south of the Russian city of Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

In April, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow would recognize legal documents issued by the Abkhaz and South Ossetian governments, effectively treating the provinces as part of Russia. Weeks later, Russia moved several hundred more peacekeeping troops and heavy weaponry into Abkhazia, boosting its force there to nearly 3,000 soldiers, analysts said.

"Abkhazia has always been the greater prize," said Svante Cornell, research director at the Central Asia Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "The broadening of the war from South Ossetia to Abkhazia took place without any provocation whatsoever, which suggests there were plans to do it all along."

With Georgian forces preoccupied in South Ossetia, the fighting in Abkhazia was light. On Aug. 9, Abkhaz troops took control of Kodori Gorge, the last patch of territory that the Georgia army held inside Abkhazia. Some 3,000 residents fled the area, the U.N. refugee agency said.

Kodori refugees said that Georgian officials had warned of an offensive and urged residents to evacuate. They said Russian planes staged bombing raids for at least three days, damaging Georgian government buildings and some homes, although there were few injuries.

"Russian planes were circling the village. The whole village panicked," said Shota Vezdenidze, 65, who now lives with his family in a shelter in the Georgian city of Kutaisi. "They just wanted all the people to flee so they could take it over."

In the hope of reconciliation, Saakashvili's government had pumped money into Kodori and borderline villages such as Gunmuhuri, about 40 miles to the south. Gunmuhuri saw new roads constructed, its long-neglected beachfront cleaned up and a summer camp opened on the water last year to bring together young Georgians, Abkhaz and Ossetians.

Residents said Russian airstrikes this month flattened the camp and its 56 cottages. The village has emptied of all but the elderly, who remain in their homes and try to avoid the Abkhaz soldiers.

Alexander Darsania, a 21-year-old villager who fled to Anaklia, said he feared being captured and forced into the Abkhaz army. While he said that Abkhaz forces hadn't abused villagers, the soldiers have free rein. Darsania sneaked back into his home one morning last week and saw that soldiers had ransacked the place looking for food.

"They do whatever they want," he said. "No one can say no to them."

Experts say that it's unclear whether ethnic Georgian refugees will return to areas that are under Abkhaz and Russian control. Chirikba, the Abkhaz official, acknowledged Georgians' concerns.

"We don't see any problem with them living in Abkhazia. They are Abkhazian citizens and protected by the law," he said. "But many are afraid to return."

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