Russia backs Georgia rebel regions on status

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The Independent Online

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged support today for two separatist regions fighting for independence from Georgia, as Washington demanded that the war-torn country's territorial integrity be respected.

Sharpening the confrontation with the United States over the future of Georgia, Medvedev received in the Kremlin the leaders of the two separatist regions at the heart of the week-old conflict and promised them Moscow's backing.

"Russia's position is unchanged: we will support any decisions taken by the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in accordance with the UN Charter...and not only do we support but we will guarantee them," he said.

The conflict over the rebel province of South Ossetia erupted last week when Tbilisi launched an offensive to retake the tiny territory, which threw off Georgian rule in the early 1990s and declared independence.

Moscow responded with a massive counter-strike.

In Georgia, US military planes airlifted aid in a show of Washington's support for its embattled ally, part of whose territory is now occupied by a large force of Russian troops and tanks.

A shaky ceasefire with Russian troops appeared to prevail in the conflict zone in central Georgia, though there were reports of Moscow's troops entering and moving around at least two Georgian towns, Gori and Poti.

Moscow said it was handing over control of Gori, a key Georgian town 35 miles east of the capital Tbilisi which lies near the main road connecting eastern and western Georgia. Russia had earlier denied having troops in the town.

"For another two days Russian troops will stay in the region to carry out procedures of handing over control functions to Georgian law enforcement bodies after which they will leave," Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov told Russian news agencies.

In the Black Sea port of Poti, a small oil terminal, witnesses said Russian tanks had rolled in on this morning, accompanying trucks carrying troops to the port area.

"Just a few minutes ago, they (Russians) entered Poti in tanks," shipping agent Nikoloz Gogoli told Reuters by telephone.

The harbourmaster in Poti, who did not want to give his name, said Russian troops sank six Georgian cutters - old military boats - based at Poti yesterday. Gogoli said the cutters were blown up with explosives and that Russian troops warned bystanders of their plans. Nobody was hurt, he added.

Russia's deputy chief of the General Staff, Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, denied Moscow had armour or troops in Poti.

Stepping up diplomatic efforts to end the week-old conflict, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to meet the architect of the European Union-sponsored ceasefire, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, before heading to Tbilisi.

The conflict has unnerved oil markets because of the region's importance as an energy transit route from the Caspian to Europe and alarmed Western governments because of its potential to spiral into a bigger international confrontation.

Sarkozy negotiated a six-point ceasefire which appears to have halted most of the combat, although there were reports from the conflict zone of marauding Ossetian militias burning and looting Georgian villages to exact revenge.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) activists said they saw looting yesterday though it appeared to be on a less intensive scale than on Tuesday, when they saw many houses burning in four villages inhabited by ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia.

"They were moving cattle and furniture. They were wearing combat fatigues," Tanya Lokshina of US-based HRW said from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali today. "But on Wednesday the Russian military were trying to rein them in," she said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow's forces "have received strict orders from the supreme commander-in-chief to apply wartime laws to looters". South Ossetian authorities said they had shot dead two looters yesterday.

EU foreign ministers agreed in principle yesterday to send monitors to supervise the truce but said any wider European peacekeeping operation would need a UN resolution.

Georgia has repeatedly alleged that Russia is violating the ceasefire by moving forces into Georgian towns such as Gori and the Black Sea port of Poti. Moscow denies breaking the truce, saying a clause in the plan allows it to "implement additional security measures" while awaiting international monitors.

Russian forces said they had shot down a total of three Georgian spy drones over South Ossetia and reported sniper attacks by Georgian special forces on and around Tskhinvali.

US President George Bush, flanked by Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates at the White House, demanded yesterday Moscow end the crisis, abide by the agreed ceasefire and withdraw its troops from Georgia.

"The United States of America stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia. We insist that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected," Bush said.