First leader of Georgian rebel region Abkhazia dies

TBILISI Thu Mar 4, 2010 7:00pm IST

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TBILISI (Reuters) - Vladislav Ardzinba, who wrenched Abkhazia from Georgian government control after the collapse of the Soviet Union, died on Thursday after years of serious illness.

The 64-year-old died at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow.

He had been taken there about a week ago from his native Abkhazia, a territory of around 8,000 square km (3,000 square miles) that borders Russia on the Black Sea and is popular with Russian holidaymakers.

Ardzinba was the leader of Abkhazia when it threw off Georgian rule in a 1992-93 war after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 stoked fears among ethnic Abkhaz their influence in their homeland would be further diminished.

After sporadic fighting, former Soviet republic Georgia sent in the army and paramilitaries to stamp out calls for Abkhazia's secession, only to be pushed back to the Inguri river -- today's de-facto border -- by Abkhaz militias backed by Russian forces.

Ardzinba was elected as Abkhazia's president in 1994 in a vote never recognised by Georgia and held the post until he resigned due to illness in 2005.

"Vladislav Ardzinba was a great individual. His deeds before the Abkhaz people are unbounded," the rebel region's present leader and Ardzinba's successor, Sergei Bagapsh, was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.

Russia recognised Abkhazia as an independent state after fighting a brief war with Georgia over another breakaway region, South Ossetia, in August 2008. Only Venezuela, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the tiny nation of Nauru have followed suit.

Georgian state minister for Reintegration, Temur Iakobashvili, expressed his condolences while adding that he did not think anyone in Georgia was very upset.

"Politicians should be judged by their legacy," Iakobashvili told Reuters, pointing to the expulsion of more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians -- about half of Abkhazia's population -- from the territory after the war.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev phoned Bagapsh on Thursday -- also the day of the Abkhaz leader's birthday -- and offered condolences over Ardzinba's death, a Kremlin statement said.

(Additional reporting by Matt Robinson; writing by Margarita Antidze; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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