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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Russia warns Georgia over Ossetia as tensions rise

MOSCOW, July 19 (Reuters) - Russia warned Georgia on Wednesday against interfering with the work of its peacekeepers in two breakaway Georgian regions and said it would not hesitate to use all means available to protect them.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Ekho Moskvy radio station that a recent rise in tensions in the regions, where Tbilisi wants to regain control, indicated that "some sort of forceful act in South Ossetia" is being planned.

Officials in Tbilisi and Moscow have been trading increasingly loaded barbs about who is responsible for fanning violence in South Ossetia, where Russian troops remain after separating the two sides in 1993.

Georgia's parliament on Tuesday demanded Russian troops leave the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- home to "frozen conflicts" dating back to the collapse of the Soviet Union -- but Lavrov rejected the demand.

"We will defend our citizens with every means we have at our disposal. We do not recommend anyone impinges on the lives of our citizens, our peacekeepers," Lavrov said, according to the transcript of an an interview that will be aired on Thursday.

"The Georgian side is systematically sabotaging the mechanisms which were created for the regulation of the South Ossetian and Abkhazian conflicts," Lavrov said.

Russia says its troops are the only guarantee to preventing a resumption of the bloodshed that gripped the region in 1992-3. Russia gives financial support to the regions and residents are eligible for Russian passports.

Russia reacted angrily to the Georgian parliament's statement, which accused Russia of trying to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- an allegation the foreign ministry called "an unworthy attempt to attribute blame where it does not belong."

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said a final decision on the presence of the Russian troops would be decided after a meeting this week with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
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