President Sergei Bagapsh, 62, leader of Abkhazia, a separatist region of Georgia aligned with Russia, died Sunday in a Moscow hospital where he was being treated for lung cancer. President Bagapsh, who had led Abkhazia since 2005, was credited with leading the region to de facto independence.
Abkhazia had spun out of Georgia's control in fighting in the early 1990s. But during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, Abkhaz forces with help from the Russian military succeeded in pushing Georgian troops out of the last bit of territory they held in Abkhazia.
Moscow then recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another separatist region and the focus of the brief war. Only Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the small South Pacific island nation of Nauru have followed suit, while the rest of the world still considers both regions to be Georgian territory. The following year, President Bagapsh was reelected to a second term and vowed to maintain close ties with Russia.
Russia has thousands of troops based in Abkhazia and is deeply interested in the region's stability. It lies just to the south of Sochi, the Black Sea resort where Russia will hold the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Russia President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expressed their condolences to Abkhazians over the loss of the president, whom they praised for what they described as putting Abkhazia on the path to international recognition of its sovereignty and for strengthening ties with Russia.
Vice President Alexander Ankvab will lead Abkhazia until new elections are held, expected within three months. - AP