NATO risks Georgia rebels' secession: Russia

( Reuter )- Georgia's Moscow-backed rebel regions will secede if NATO moves to make Georgia a member, a senior Russian official said on Tuesday.

Russia says NATO expansion threatens its national security due to fears that Washington will use former Soviet republics like Georgia as a new beach-head to deploy troops and weapons close to Russia's borders.

Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions broke with Tbilisi following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union that weakened Moscow's imperial dominance in the south Caucasus. They have relied on Moscow's support since.

The Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions already run their own affairs but have no international recognition.

"Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not intend to join NATO. They have a completely different view," Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said in an interview from Brussels.

"As soon as Georgia gets some kind of prospect from Washington of NATO membership, the next day the process of real secession of these two territories from Georgia will begin."

He signaled this could mean Russia throwing its weight behind the separatists' campaign for international recognition, a possibility that alarms Georgia's Western allies who say its territorial integrity should be respected.

His warning comes just three weeks after Kosovo broke away from Russia's ally Serbia - a move Moscow condemned as a threat to stability and said could trigger secession movements.

It also set the scene for a NATO summit in Romania on April 2-4 at which members will consider whether to initiate the membership process for Georgia.

The European Union voiced concern on Monday at signs that Russia may be preparing to recognize Abkhazia, the bigger of the two rebel regions which lies a few kilometers (miles) from the site where Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Moscow announced earlier this month it will drop formal trade restrictions on Abkhazia, a largely symbolic move to signal its support for the separatists.

But Western diplomats at the United Nations say Russia's Abkhazia position is Moscow's revenge for U.S. and European support for Kosovo's independence against the wishes of Serbia.

The U.S. envoy to the United Nations said on Tuesday Washington regretted Russia's decision to end the Abkhazia sanctions and urged respect for Georgian territory.

"Most alarming is the prospect that Russia's withdrawal from the sanctions could lead to arms transfers to the separatists," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters in New York.

He said Kosovo was a special case and the two issues had no connection.

Responding to Rogozin's comments, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the alliance had taken no decision on whether to offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan, the first step to membership.

"That being said, NATO allies fully and strongly support the territorial integrity of Georgia under any possible scenarios."

In Tbilisi, the head of the Georgian parliament's foreign relations committee said Moscow was waging a campaign to derail its NATO bid.

" Russia's steps and statements are hysterical," Kote Gabashvili told Reuters. "When Russia made a decision on lifting sanctions on Abkhazia, they were starting their preparations for the NATO ministerial meeting."

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