Rice assures Georgia of US support in rift with Russia

(dpa) - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured her Georgian counterpart of US support in the dispute over Russia's plans to strengthen ties with the former Soviet state's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"The United States is firmly committed to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia," Rice said just before meeting with Georgian Foreign Minister Davit Bakradze.
Washington was "very concerned" by Russian President Vladimir Putin's move on April 16 to cement ties with the separatist regions, Rice said, and has called on the Kremlin to repeal the order.
Georgia has accused Moscow of violating its territorial integrity and of seeking to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions with Russian populations that have been autonomous since civil wars ended in the early 1990s.
Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi further escalated after a Georgian drone aircraft was shot down over Abkhazia on Sunday. Georgia blamed Russia for the shootdown. Moscow accused Georgia of violating a ceasefire with the flight and said separatist rebels downed the aircraft.
Bakradze said Georgia was "very grateful for such a clear and unconditional support" from the United States and that it would help the country overcome the "potentially very dangerous and provocative" Russian policies.
Russia has maintained peacekeeping troops in the regions since 1993 and the separatists have looked to Moscow for support. Putin's decision to broaden relations with the regions has raised the eyebrows of the United States, the European Union and NATO.
Rice said she discussed her concerns with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week at an Iraq conference in Kuwait and last week over the telephone.
"There should be no question as to Georgia's integrity and Georgia's full incorporation into the international community" and eventual membership in NATO, Rice said.
Russian peacekeeping troops have been in the breakaway regions since 1993, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia have long looked to Moscow for support in their bid for independence. Residents have been issued Russian passports in recent years.
Russia officially respects Georgia's territorial integrity but has warned that Kosovo's independence from Serbia in February could serve as a precedent and has stepped up ties, and has lifted trade restrictions against both regions.
The United States and most EU nations quickly recognized Kosovo after the tiny state declared independence. Russia, Serbia's traditional ally, rejected the move while declaring it could set a precedent for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia did not recognize Kosovo.
Russia has also been irked by NATO plans to eventually invite Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance.
President George W Bush has backed the move at the NATO summit Bucharest earlier this month. The alliance rejected Bush's appeal for an immediate invitation but issued a statement saying that Georgia and Ukraine will be permitted to apply in the future.

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