U.S. Mission to the OSCE condemned the destruction of a historical site near the village of Tsebelda, in Gulripshi district of Abkhazia, Georgia.
“The destruction by Russian forces on January 3 in order to prepare the area for a military firing range for its Southern Military District’s 7th brigade is in contravention of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The site consisted of ruins dating from the 8th and 9th centuries and the late Middle Ages, as well as a 20th century cemetery. All of these elements of Georgia’s, and the Caucasus’, cultural heritage were irretrievably lost,” Deputy Chief of Mission Kate M. Byrnes stated at the Permanent Council on January 19.
The Deputy Chief of Mission said that the U.S. “expects relevant local authorities” to allow the international community “full and unfettered access” to the site through the Gali IPRM.
She also noted that “Russia’s continued occupation of Georgia’s Abkhaz and South Ossetian regions” is “unacceptable” for the United States. “We reiterate our calls for Russia, as a party to the conflict, to fulfill its obligations under the 2008 ceasefire agreement, including by withdrawing all its forces to pre-conflict positions, providing unhindered access for humanitarian assistance, and reversing its unilateral recognition of these Georgian regions as independent states,” Byrnes added.
U.S. diplomat reiterated the country’s “unequivocal support” to “Georgia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, as well as its aspirations to integrate into Euro-Atlantic institutions.”
She also “encouraged” the Austrian Chairmanship to “resume consultations on re-establishing a meaningful OSCE presence in Georgia.” The OSCE mission to Georgia closed after Russia vetoed extension of the mission mandate in December, 2008.
In her statement, the Deputy Chief of Mission also spoke on the announcement of the de-facto Abkhaz authorities that two crossing points along the Abkhaz administrative boundary line – at Nabakevi-Khurcha and Meore Otobaia-Orsantia – will be closed by the end of January and said that this could “further restrict freedom of movement, including of schoolchildren and patients requiring medical treatment.” “We are also concerned that de-facto Abkhaz authorities intend to create an enlarged “border zone” along the Abkhaz administrative boundary line, requiring special permits to enter, which would further hinder movement,” she added.
RFE/RL’s Russian-language Ekho Kavkaza reported on January 6 that the ruins of a church in the village of Tsebelda in Gulripshi district of breakaway Abkhazia were demolished with a bulldozer on January 3. According to the report, the territory was handed over to Russian border guards for building a military firing range.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili strongly condemned the demolition of the church and the Polish cemetery by Russian troops as “an act of deliberate vandalism” in his statement on January 10 and called on the international community “for adequate reaction.”
The de facto Abkhaz officials responded to the statement on January 11, accusing Tbilisi of “politicizing the facts” and stating that the de facto Abkhaz Foreign Ministry is ready “to contribute to establishing contacts” between the region’s Ministry of Culture and UNESCO “for elaborating joint protection mechanism” of historical heritage sites in Abkhazia.
The de facto Abkhaz officials said that “the historical site” was damaged when “cleaning the territory of the firing range,” but did not provide details on who ordered the demolition.
The press service of the Russian Federal Security Service’s (FSB) border guard forces, deployed in Abkhazia, issued a statement a day later, saying that the accusations of their involvement are “deliberately false” and that the location is not in their use.