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Friday, July 21, 2006

Georgia leader scraps Russia trip over rebel region

TBILISI, July 21 (Reuters) - Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili cancelled a visit to Moscow on Friday, saying Russian leader Vladimir Putin refused to meet him to discuss tensions around a rebel Georgian region.

Georgian forces are in an armed standoff with separatists in the South Ossetia region who, Saakashvili says, are backed by Russia. A series of bomb attacks has led to fears the confrontation could escalate into war.

Saakashvili hoped to discuss South Ossetia with Putin at an informal summit of ex-Soviet heads of state. But reporters gathered at Tbilisi's airport to catch a flight to Moscow with Saakashvili were told at the last minute the trip was cancelled.

"The Russian side refused to hold a one-on-one meeting of the presidents of Georgia and Russia," George Arveladze, the head of Saakashvili's administration, told Reuters.

The European Union said on Thursday it was deeply concerned over the stand-off around South Ossetia, and urged Moscow and Tbilisi to hold talks.

Tensions remained high in the region on Friday, with the rebels parading a man they called a Georgian-paid terrorist for Russian state television.

Also on Friday, Saakashvili sacked the minister who had led peace talks with separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another Georgian breakaway region.

Georgy Khaindrava had been a dissenting voice inside Saakashvili's administration on a wide range of issues.

Merab Antadze, who will replace Khaindrava as state minister for conflict situations, was in Moscow on Friday trying to organise Saakashvili's meeting.

He told Russia's Interfax news agency Georgia still hoped a meeting with Putin would go ahead soon.


The Kremlin said it regretted that Saakashvili would not be at the summit. "The summit is of an informal character and therefore one-on-one meetings are not envisaged," said deputy Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

"We regret hearing about his decision not to come however it is with surprise that we heard his words that this was linked to not being able to hold a ... meeting with President Putin."

In fighting in the 1990s, the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia drove out Georgian forces and established de facto independence. In both places, Russian peacekeeping troops oversee fragile ceasefires.

The Georgian leader says the Kremlin is trying to annexe the two regions. The Russian government supplements their budgets and issues residents with Russian passports.

Georgian relations with its former colonial master have been rocky for years. They struck new lows this year with Russia's decision to ban imports of Georgian wine and mineral water and to close the main border crossing.

Saakashvili says Moscow is punishing him for trying to take his country into NATO and the European Union. Moscow says the Georgian leadership is fanning confrontation with Russia to distract attention from its domestic failings.

South Ossetia said it had detained a man who was recruited by Georgian security forces to assassinate separatist officials. His statement was broadcast on Russian television.

"In March 2006, an acquaintance of mine from Georgia, approached me in the name of the Georgian secret services, and suggested I conduct terrorist acts," the man, his eyes blacked out to hide his identity, said.
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