South Ossetia to back Russian link

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Russia's frayed relations with Georgia have come under fresh strain after the internationally unrecognised republic of South Ossetia held a referendum designed to pave the way for its incorporation into the Russian Federation. Georgia fought an unsuccessful war from 1990 to 1992 to keep the small mountain statelet within its borders and has pressed hard for the breakaway republic to "return home" ever since.

But South Ossetia has other ideas and has been trying to distance itself from Georgia by becoming part of Russia for more than a decade.

Its fate is at the heart of a row between Russia and Georgia, with Moscow keen to retain its influence and Tbilisi desperate to govern a strong unified country purged of Russian influence.

Though final results in what was billed as a referendum on South Ossetia's independence are not expected until today, the outcome is not in doubt.

The last time there was such a vote, in 1992, 99.75 per cent of South Ossetian voters said they wanted the republic to be an autonomous part of Russia.

The international community did not recognise the result then but this time separatist leaders are banking on the United Nations allowing Kosovo to break away from Serbia, a move they believe will set a precedent. The republic is one of two breakaway regions that Georgia's pro-Western government wants to reintegrate back into its borders.

Eduard Kokoity, South Ossetia's president, made it clear what he hoped the vote would achieve. "We're stretching our hands out to Russia," he said.