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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Rebel Georgian region votes in election

SUKHUMI, Georgia - Georgia's rebel region of Abkhazia voted in a parliamentary election on Sunday that Tbilisi condemned as illegal.

Georgian troops fled the tiny Black Sea province in the 1990s after a conflict with separatists. Russian-backed Abkhazia has declared independence but Tbilisi wants to re-assert control over it.

Violence and shootouts are still frequent but the situation was calm on Sunday as the nation voted to elect a new 35-seat parliament.

Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh, speaking after casting his ballot in the capital Sukhumi, said the election -- in which candidates from more than a dozen parties were taking part -- was part of the nation's independence drive.

"The international community should understand there are proper democratic institutions in Abkhazia, including the opposition, independent media and fair elections," he said.

Georgia, which seeks closer ties with the West, says its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are being artificially sustained by Russia which is manipulating the conflict to maintain its influence in the Caucasus region.

But finding a lasting settlement is key to Georgia's ambition to join NATO as no country can become a member as long as its domestic conflicts remain unresolved.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili condemned Abkhazia's election but said that Tbilisi sought a peaceful way of settling disputes.

"Any attempt to legalise the lawlessness which is taking place in Abkhazia today is unacceptable and will never be acceptable to Georgia and the international community," he said in televised remarks.

But he added: "We want peace, not revenge. We do not want violence, we want reconciliation."

The European Union has said Georgia must not be broken up and rejected arguments that the rebel regions should be granted independence if Serbia's Kosovo wins sovereignty under a U.N. proposal.
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