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Monday, November 13, 2006

Leader of rebel Georgian region claims independence vote passed

The leader of Georgia's Moscow-backed rebel territory of South Ossetia claimed a majority had voted for independence in a referendum that the international community has warned may destabilise the South Caucasus region.

"We have won together today," the region's unrecognized president Eduard Kokoity told a crowd of flag-waving supporters in the center of the region's capital Tskhinvali on Sunday after the polls closed.

Results, which officials said would be announced early Monday, were widely expected to show a massive victory for the "yes" vote, with one exit poll suggesting 99 percent of voters had backed independence.

But irrespective of the margin, the outcome is not expected to be recognised by the international community.

International mediators have warned the referendum will only serve to heighten tensions in the region, with the OSCE terming the vote "counterproductive."

The poll seems certain to aggravate an ongoing diplomatic crisis between Georgia and Russia, which openly backs the de facto authorities in South Ossetia.

Georgia, which accuses its neighbour Russia of trying to annex both South Ossetia and the breakaway region of Abkhazia, has branded the South Ossetian referendum illegitimate and vowed to restore control over the territory.

South Ossetia's de facto leadership has said the referendum is a first step towards international acceptance and eventual union with Russia.

"We are determined, and we will continue to try to achieve our goal by civilized and peaceful means... until the complete independence of South Ossetia," Kokoity told journalists earlier in the day after voting at a Tskhinvali polling station.

"We want to be part of Russia," said Ruslan, an ethnic Georgian who had voted to split from Georgia, adding that he regretted the region's ambitions caused tensions between the ethnic Georgians and Ossetians who lived there.

"We're trying to prove to the international community that we are united," said Teymuraz Dzhioyev, a 63-year-old pensioner, after casting his vote for independence.

Georgian officials accuse Russia of using the referendum to punish Tbilisi for its pro-Western course, which includes moves toward joining the European Union and NATO.

"We need to move towards recognizing reality," said Konstantin Zatulin, a member of Russia's parliament who was in Tshkhinvali as an "observer" of the referendum on Sunday.

"South Ossetia is a reality, like Transdnestr, Abkhazia and Nagorny Karabakh," he added, referring to other disputed former Soviet regions.

Voting across the region on Sunday appeared to pass off calmly, marred by isolated charges of interference from Georgian authorities and Ossetian separatist rulers, although neither was expected to affect the result.

The referendum coincided with a leadership vote in the unrecognized republic in which the incumbent Kokoity was expected to win.

An exit poll of over 5,000 voters by Kremlin-backed youth group Nashi found that 98 percent of ballots supported Kokoity's candidacy, while 99 percent voted for independence.

Some 55,000 South Ossetians were registered to vote, including about 20,000 refugees in the neighboring Russian region of North Ossetia, the region's election commission said.

Populated by a mix of ethnic Ossetians and Georgians on Russia's southwestern border, South Ossetia has long served as a flashpoint in tense Russian-Georgian relations.

Tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow escalated last month when Georgia arrested and then expelled four Russian officers it accused of spying.
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