EU ministers warn Putin over Georgia

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The Independent Online

Europe set the scene for a showdown with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, at a summit this week, after it made a blunt call on Moscow to stop its harassment of Georgians.

A toughly worded statement agreed by EU foreign ministers urged Russia "not to pursue measures targeting Georgians in the Russian Federation."

However France and Greece, which led efforts to tone down the text, agreed to it only when it also made reference to a United Nations resolution which called for restraint from Georgia.

Yesterday's communiqué, which was stronger than expected, comes just three days before Mr Putin attends a dinner with EU leaders at their summit in Lahti in Finland. Poland and other former Soviet-bloc nations made clear their determination to take Moscow to task both over Georgia and human rights following the murder of the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

However ministers insisted that, in calling on Georgia to lower its rhetoric, they were taking a balanced approach. Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, said of Friday's meeting in Lahti: "I don't think people will hide from any concerns but I think they will look to tone the temperature down and for peaceful resolution of whatever disputes have arisen and for respect for Georgian territorial integrity."

The crisis began when Georgia arrested four Russian officers it accused of spying last month. Though the men were swiftly released Russia has cut transport and communications links to its neighbour which has angered Mr Putin with its pursuit of closer ties with Nato.

Moscow has also cracked down on Georgian-run businesses and on citizens of the country living in Russia, deporting hundreds of people it says are in the country illegally.

Meanwhile the EU's foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana, said it would be "very difficult" to avoid discussion of the fatal shooting of Ms Politkovskaya.

Mr Putin has suggested her killers might have been out to stain his government and insists they will be punished.

Russian diplomats believe that Friday's summit will be dominated by energy issues rather than human rights or Georgia.

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