Backing Georgia-Abkhazia dialogue priority for Russia - defense minister

(RIA Novosti) - Supporting dialogue between Georgia and its breakaway region of Abkhazia is a key priority for Russia, the Russian defense minister said Friday.

"We are not involved in the conflict, and want Georgia and Abkhazia to establish contacts with one another," said Sergei Ivanov, who is also a deputy prime minister.

Russia retains a UN-mandated peacekeeping presence in Georgia's turbulent regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which gained de facto independence following bloody conflicts after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, reports Trend.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who swept into power on the back of a "color" revolution in 2003, pledged to bring the self-proclaimed republics back into the fold. His defense minister has also said Georgian troops will celebrate New Year's day in the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali.

Georgia deployed massive troops in the Kodori Gorge, controlled by Abkhazia in its lower section, last summer under the guise of a police operation there. Russia said it was a provocation and demanded their withdrawal.

On October 13, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a Russian-sponsored draft resolution on Georgia, urging the ex-Soviet country to refrain from provocative actions in Abkhazia and calling for an extension of the Russian peacekeeping mission in the region until April 15, 2007.

Ivanov said Russia rejects criticism of Russian peacekeepers' presence in the breakaway regions, saying that their primary mission is the prevention of further bloodshed.

"If some people are against Russia's mandate, they should hold talks to change it," he said.

Both the Georgian government and parliament have sought to remove Russian peacekeepers from the conflict zones and to force the withdrawal of Russian troops from two Soviet-era bases due to close in 2008.

Tbilisi has repeatedly accused Moscow of siding with separatists and of supporting the breakaway regions' drive for full independence. In July the Georgian parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to declare Russian peacekeepers in the country illegal.

The parliament of Abkhazia issued a resolution October 18 asking for Russia's recognition of its independence and associated membership.

Russia has not officially expressed a desire to admit Abkhazia or other breakaway territories to the Russian federation, but has drawn a parallel with Kosovo. The country said recognizing the sovereignty of the Serbian province, sought by the Albanian majority, would set a precedent for other separatist regions in former Soviet republics.

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