Diplomatic Effort: UN urges Russia to halt offensive

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The Independent Online

The United States challenged Russia over whether the Kremlin is pursuing a goal of "regime change" in Georgia, in a heated exchange at the UN as diplomatic efforts to halt the fighting intensified last night.

France was drafting a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, and reflecting a three-point peace plan outlined by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, after three hours of closed-door UN Security Council discussions. Diplomats said that the US, Britain and other European council members would ensure the draft – expected to be discussed today – referred to the "sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Georgia amid suspicions of Moscow's intentions.

During the council session, the American ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, asked Russia's UN envoy about remarks by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who told the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the Georgian President "must go".

According to diplomats, Mr Khalilzad then challenged the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, on whether Moscow was seeking regime change, asking: "Is the goal of the Russian Federation to change the leadership of Georgia?" Mr Churkin did not admit to the charge.

The Bush administration had voiced concern about Russia's "disproportionate and dangerous" retaliation against Georgia over its military offensive in South Ossetia.

The French-drafted UN resolution is unlikely to apportion blame for the conflict in the interests of securing as many votes in favour as possible among the 15 members of the Security Council where Russia holds a veto. Diplomats said the text would call for a withdrawal of both Russian and Georgian forces, and envisage an "international" presence that would substitute for Russian peacekeepers deployed in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, whose country holds the EU presidency, arrived in Tbilisi last night for talks with the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and will head for Moscow after that. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, is expected to hold talks at the Kremlin later in the week.

EU foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting in Brussels to discuss the crisis on Wednesday.