updated 8/13/2008 5:36:08 PM ET 2008-08-13T21:36:08

A few dozen fighters from the separatist region of Abkhazia crossed a thin slice of land dotted with Georgian villages Wednesday and planted their red, white and green flag in Georgian territory in a brazen challenge to the country's sovereignty.

The land grab came after days of battling between Georgian and Russian troops over another separatist region of Georgia, South Ossetia. The Abkhazian fighters are also backed by Russian military might.

"This is Abkhazian land," one of the fighters proclaimed, planting the flag on the Georgian side of a bridge across the Inguri river. "The border has been along this river for 1,000 years," separatist official Ruslan Kishmaria said at the bridge on the outskirts of Ganmukhuri, a village previously held by Georgia.

The separatists made their move hours after Georgia's president said he accepted a cease-fire plan brokered by France. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that Russia was halting military action because Georgia had paid enough for its attack last Thursday on the pro-Russian breakaway province of South Ossetia.

Officials in the Georgian town of Zugdidi, near Abkhazia, alleged the separatists' move was a violation of the cease-fire. They said Abkhazian forces crossed the border and occupied villages on the Georgian side.

"They breached the agreement. They occupied territory that belongs to Zugdidi district," said Tengiz Shanava, aide to the district chief. Shanava spoke Wednesday from his office in Zugdidi while briefing three U.N. military officials in blue berets, and showing them locations on a map.

The fighters said they were laying claim to what has historically been Abkhazian territory and that Georgian troops left without challenging them. Kishmaria said Georgia would have to accept the new border and taunted the Georgian forces who had left in recent days, saying they had received "American training in running away."

'Goodbye America'
Several dozen Abkhazian fighters in camouflage stood near their flag, some holding AK-47 assault rifles. One had a dagger sheathed on his hip. Some wore running shoes with a camouflage pattern. Several old, olive-colored jeeps were parked nearby.

"Goodbye America," one said derisively as an American reporter approached.

A dozen Russian military vehicles, including tanks, were in Zugdidi on Wednesday afternoon, and another dozen were heading into the town from the south. Further south, along the road to the port city of Batumi, about 50 vehicles were parked.

Later in the day, a Georgian official said the Russians had left Zugdidi.

Near the bridge over the Inguri, a group of Georgian men watched sullenly. One said the Abkhazians had promised to provide food to people in Ganmukhuri, but that they had instead asked local women to prepare food for their forces.

Georgians said most residents of Ganmukhuri had fled, though the Abkhazian fighters told The Associated Press that they had not entered people's homes and that people were free to come and go from Georgian territory.

People in panic
On Tuesday, Abkhazian forces moved to take control of several villages in the area of the Inguri River dam, and control a bridge leading to the town of Jvari. Four truckloads of security personnel with the Abkhazian police insignia on their uniforms were in the area, and detained three Georgian policemen.

In Ganmukhuri, southwest of Zugdidi and on the Black Sea coast, Abkhazian forces "robbed" a Georgian police post and have occupied the village, Shanava said.

"The people of Gamukhuri are in a panic and they are leaving under very heavy psychological pressure from the other side," he said.

Shanava also said "a few very important buildings were occupied by the Russians" in Zugdidi and that they had removed documents and computers.

"Our law enforcement bodies are unarmed," he said, noting that Georgian authorities were now poorly equipped to police the area.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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