Report of the Secretary-General on the situation in Abkhazia, Georgia (S/2008/631)


I. Introduction

1. The present report is submitted pursuant to Security Council resolution 1808 (2008) of 15 April 2008, by which the Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) until 15 October 2008. It provides an update of the situation in Abkhazia, Georgia, since my report of 23 July 2008 (S/2008/480).

2. My Special Representative, Jean Arnault, led the Mission until 30 September. He was succeeded by Johan Verbeke, who has been in close contact with Member States and international organizations working in Georgia. The Chief Military Observer, Major General Niaz Muhammad Khan Khattak (Pakistan), who completed his tour of duty and left the Mission on 25 August, was succeeded by Major General Anwar Hussain (Bangladesh). The strength of UNOMIG on 20 September 2008 stood at 134 military observers (including 12 medical personnel) and 17 police advisers (see annex).

II. Political process and major developments

3. During the reporting period, the situation in the Mission's area of responsibility witnessed dramatic changes following the outbreak of hostilities in South Ossetia on 7 and 8 August. Throughout that period, my Special Representative and the leadership of UNOMIG maintained regular contacts with both sides, with the representatives of the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General and with the leadership of the Collective Peacekeeping Forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

4. Before the events in August, UNOMIG assisted the efforts of Germany as the Coordinator of the Group of Friends to advance a plan for the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. The plan was proposed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and presented to the sides during his visit to the region in mid-July. It contemplated a three-phase process: the first phase envisaged agreements on security measures, including a declaration on the non-use of force, and on the principle of, and modalities for, the return of internally displaced persons and refugees; the second phase envisaged economic rehabilitation and a broad array of confidence-building measures; and the third and final phase envisaged discussions on the political status of Abkhazia. The Mission facilitated visits to Sukhumi by the German Ambassador as part of his Government's effort to convene a meeting in Berlin with the participation of the Georgian and Abkhaz sides and the Group of Friends. UNOMIG also facilitated a visit to Sukhumi at the end of July by Matthew Bryza, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and senior representative of the United States of America in the Group of Friends.

5. The Georgian and Abkhaz sides expressed gratitude for the German initiative and stated their readiness to participate in a meeting in Berlin. At the same time, they predicated their support for the proposed plan on a number of conditions. The Georgian side reiterated its demand that a number of decisions made by the Russian Federation in April and May (see S/2008/480, paras. 8-10) be reversed. The Abkhaz side stressed once again that a commitment by Georgia to the non-use of force and its withdrawal from the Kodori Valley were prerequisites for the start of any talks. It also requested that the meeting in Berlin, initially scheduled for the end of July, be postponed to a later date. On 4 August, as exchanges of fire between the Georgian and South Ossetian sides during the first days of the month intensified, the Abkhaz side announced the postponement of its participation in the meeting until the situation in South Ossetia de-escalated. It also warned that "if Georgia starts fighting against South Ossetia, Abkhazia will open a second front".

6. In late July and early August, tensions between Georgia and Russia continued to rise. Russian officials increasingly insisted that the Georgian side sign non-use of force agreements with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sides to defuse tensions on the ground and restore confidence as a basis for negotiation. They also suggested that the issue of the return of displaced persons and refugees be addressed at some later stage. For their part, the Georgian officials continued to accuse the Russian Federation of attempting to annex Georgian territories and repeated their demands that both the negotiations and peacekeeping formats be further internationalized.

7. The dramatic escalation of hostilities in South Ossetia on 7 and 8 August and the subsequent Georgian-Russian conflict profoundly affected the situation in the Georgian-Abkhaz zone of conflict and the overall conflict-settlement process. The mandate of UNOMIG is limited to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, and the Mission is therefore not in a position to describe the conduct of military operations in and around South Ossetia. This present report refers only to information on operations carried out in and around the Mission's area of responsibility, whether obtained directly by the Mission or from credible sources.

8. Starting in the early hours of 9 August, Russian forces reportedly carried out aerial attacks in western Georgia, including on the Senaki military base and military targets in the port of Poti, as well as around the town of Zugdidi. On 10 and 11 August, the Russian Federation introduced large numbers of troops into the zone of conflict by road, rail and air. While the troops were initially deployed on the Gali side of the ceasefire line, they were later moved into the Zugdidi side of the zone of conflict and adjacent areas in Senaki and Poti. Russian navy ships were deployed along the coast.

9. On 8 August, the Abkhaz side began introducing heavy weapons into the restricted weapons zone in violation of the 1994 Moscow Agreement on a Ceasefire and Separation of Forces (see S/1994/583, annex I). During the afternoon of 9 August, a series of bombardments was carried out in the upper Kodori Valley. On 12 August, the Abkhaz side launched a ground attack and established control over the upper Kodori Valley. The local population and Georgian armed personnel had left the Valley shortly before the arrival of the Abkhaz forces.

10. The launch by the Georgian side of large-scale operations in South Ossetia in August only strengthened the Abkhaz side's perception of being a likely target. That perception was reinforced after the reported seizure in the upper Kodori Valley of a number of heavy artillery pieces that had been barred under the 1994 Moscow Agreement. The Abkhaz side criticized UNOMIG for failing to uncover those heavy weapons and questioned the ability of the international community to contribute to the preservation of peace in the region. In this connection, it is worth recalling that I had called for the strengthening of the Mission's monitoring capacity in my previous reports to the Council.

11. On 12 August, the French presidency of the European Union (EU) visited Moscow and Tbilisi. The discussions led to the formulation of a six-point ceasefire plan which contained provisions that also affected the situation in the UNOMIG area of responsibility.

12. On 26 August, the President of the Russian Federation stated that the attack by Georgia on South Ossetia had left Russia with no choice but to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent States. The Abkhaz side greeted Russia's decision as "historic". The Georgian side called it illegitimate and a violation of the fundamental principles and norms of international law and numerous Security Council resolutions. The Georgian leadership also characterized Russia's actions as an attempt to legitimize "the use of violence, direct military aggression and ethnic cleansing aimed at changing the borders of a neighbouring State". In response to strong international criticism and support expressed for Georgia's territorial integrity, the Russian Federation stated that any return to status quo ante was no longer possible in the light of the genocide in South Ossetia.

13. On 28 August, the Parliament of Georgia passed a unanimous resolution declaring Abkhazia and South Ossetia territories occupied by the Russian Federation and the Russian peacekeepers an occupying force. Georgia subsequently severed diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation.

14. On 29 August, the Government of Georgia declared that the 1994 Moscow Agreement was null and void. It reiterated its commitment to the six-point ceasefire plan of 12 August and related subsequent explanations by President Sarkozy as the only valid basis for conflict resolution. Considering that the Georgian decision removed any restrictions imposed on it by the 1994 Moscow Agreement, the Abkhaz side announced its intention to reinforce the "State border" as a priority matter. On 1 September, in a note to the CIS Executive Council, Georgia provided notification of its decision to terminate the CIS peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia, Georgia. Georgia also withdrew, effective 18 August, from the CIS and from several related key agreements.

15. On 8 September, the French presidency of the European Union and the President of the Russian Federation elaborated a number of provisions for the implementation of the six-point plan of 12 August which were agreed upon on the same day by the President of Georgia. Among those provisions, it was reaffirmed that UNOMIG observers would continue to carry out their mandate in their areas of responsibility at the same personnel levels and deployment pattern as had existed on 7 August 2008, subject to possible future adjustments decided on by the Security Council.

16. On 9 September, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and the Abkhaz de facto Foreign Minister signed a document establishing formal diplomatic relations. This was followed by an official visit by the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation to Sukhumi on 14 September and the signing of an agreement on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance in Moscow on 17 September, which, inter alia, envisaged cooperation in the economic, legal and security fields, including the construction and use of military bases.

17. On 25 September, a car bomb exploded in front of the building of the Abkhaz de facto security service in Sukhumi. The building and several adjacent apartment buildings were severely damaged, but no casualties were reported. The Abkhaz de facto authorities accused the Georgian special services of being responsible for the blast. The Georgian authorities denied any involvement.