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US warns Russia: Don’t back Georgia rebel regions

Maastricht (Netherlands), Dec. 2 (Reuters): The US issued a thinly-veiled warning to Russia today not to back Georgia’s breakaway regions amid instability in the former Soviet republic after last month's bloodless revolution.

Georgia, troubled by three restive regions, plans to hold presidential elections on January 4 to replace Eduard Shevardnadze, who was toppled by mass protests last month after allegations of vote-rigging in parliamentary polls.

“The international community should do everything possible to support Georgia’s territorial integrity throughout and beyond the election process,” US secretary of state Colin Powell told the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

“No support should be given to breakaway elements seeking to weaken Georgia’s territorial integrity,” he told OSCE members from Europe, Central Asia and North America gathered for the meeting in the Dutch city of Maastricht.

Georgia’s stability is monitored by both the west — because of a $2.5 billion oil pipeline due to take Caspian oil to the Mediterranean — and neighbour Russia, which fears instability could aid Chechen separatists holed up in Georgian mountains.

Interim President Nino Burdzhanadze, an Opposition leader appointed after Shevardnadze quit, accused Russia yesterday of interfering in Georgia’s domestic politics and urged Moscow to move away from its Soviet-era “Big Brother” meddling.

Tbilisi was angered last week when Russian officials met leaders from South Ossetia and Abkhazia — which broke free of Georgian control more than a decade ago and want to join Russia — and from Adzhara, which does not want secession but is hostile to the new Georgian rulers. Dutch foreign minister and OSCE chairman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the meeting that all 55 members of the democracy body except Russia had agreed to a statement supporting “the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia”.

De Hoop Scheffer and Powell both regretted Russia would not adhere to a deal struck with the OSCE to scale back its forces in Georgia, where it has two bases.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who met his Russian counterpart in Brussels today, said he had stressed the importance of respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity, but did not say if he had received any assurances on the matter.

Regional leaders accuse Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian Opposition leader on track to win the January election, of contemplating using force to restore control over territories lost to Tbilisi for a decade or more.

The Kremlin, which played a central role in negotiations leading to Shevardnadze’s resignation, has vowed not to interfere in Georgia’s internal politics.

But after Russia met regional Georgian leaders last week, the respected Moscow daily Izvestia said the Kremlin might try to engineer a formal break between Tbilisi and the two regions most hostile to Georgian rule.

After meeting Burdzhanadze on the sidelines of the OSCE summit, Powell said he had offered Georgia both technical and financial help for the upcoming elections.

De Hoop Scheffer said the OSCE had raised more than seven million euros for Georgia.

Powell’s visit to Maastricht is on the first day of a three-day trip that will also take him to Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria before ending on Thursday in Brussels, where he will attend a Nato foreign ministers meeting.

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