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Thousands Flee Abkhazia Fighting

May 27, 1998

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ Fighting in the breakaway region of Abkhazia has forced up to 38,000 people to flee their homes in the past four days, Georgian officials said today.

Among them were 30,000 ethnic Georgians who had returned to Abkhazia only recently after fleeing during the 1992-93 war.

The refugees have been pouring into the neighboring regions of Zugdidi and Salendzhikha since Sunday, said Tamaz Nadareishvili, a leader of exiled Georgian officials from Abkhazia. They are being sheltered in kindergartens, schools and tents, as well as in relatives’ homes.

Twenty-three railway cars in Zugdidi also have been pressed into service as temporary shelters, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Hundreds of homes in a string of ethnic Georgian-inhabited villages in Abkhazia have been burned, Nadareishvili said. Smoke could be seen rising over the region today, he said.

Abkhazia, a Black Sea province in northwest Georgia, declared independence in 1992. The separatists drove out Georgian troops and ethnic Georgian civilians in a 13-month war.

Despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the region, violence has broken out sporadically since the war. At least 100 people were killed in fighting last week.

Most of the recent clashes have been between the Abkhazian separatists and militiamen who support Georgia’s central government. But Georgian Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze acknowledged that troops from his ministry had entered the Ghali district this week.

A cease-fire took effect Tuesday, but scattered shooting was reported and the combatants have been slow to withdraw from the region. Thousands of people have continued to flee.

Gen. Maj. Eduard Gendzekhadze, the head of Georgia’s Interior Ministry headquarters, said the Abkhazian Interior Ministry had reported that it was withdrawing troops today but refused to comment on the reports of burning houses.

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