MOSCOW - Russia said yesterday that it may use military force if conflict breaks out between Georgia and its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, voicing concern about the presence of Georgian troops in the area.
Foreign Ministry official Valery Kenyaikin also was critical of the US role in helping to resolve the dispute, which threatens to destabilize the entire strategic South Caucasus.
His comments were Moscow's sharpest warning to Georgia in its standoff with the two breakaway regions.
"We don't plan anything of a military character, but should military conflicts break out on one side or another, then the initiator of these conflicts should be assured that Russia will take all possible measures in order to defend the interests of its countrymen and its citizens," he said in televised comments.
He alleged Georgia was building up military forces along the administrative border that separates it from Abkhazia, echoing accusations made earlier in the day by Abkhazian officials.
The buildup "can only mean preparations for military action . . . possibly in the nearest future. This can't be ruled out," he was quoted as saying.
In Tbilisi, Georgian Defense Ministry spokeswoman Nana Intskirveli confirmed that additional forces were in regions near Abkhazia, but said they were part of a scheduled training exercise.
There was no immediate comment from Georgia's Foreign Ministry, but lawmakers reacted harshly to Kenyaikin's comments.
"This . . . without a doubt is a direct threat to Georgia," said Givi Targamadze, chairman of Parliament's defense and security committee.
"The international community should understand how serious this threat is, how aggressive Russia is, how Russia is prepared to take these steps," he said.
Kenyaikin, who is in charge of relations with former Soviet states, also said he has "no confidence" that Washington is working in any way to resolve the standoff between Georgia and the two breakaway regions.
The United States has taken on a growing, though largely behind-the-scenes role in the dispute as President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia has turned to Washington as a counterbalance to Russia's influence in the region.