Russia recognises rebel regions in new challenge to West
Thursday, 28 August 2008

AFP, MOSCOW  - Russia on Tuesday formally recognised the Georgian rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in a new challenge which angered the Western powers.

President Dmitry Medvedev's declaration prompted bursts of celebratory gunfire in the streets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia but immediate censure from the United States and its allies.
"We're not afraid of anything," Medvedev declared when asked on television if he feared the stand-off would lead to a new Cold War. Russia condemned a build-up of NATO ships in the Black Sea, said by the West to be delivering aid and conducting previously arranged exercises.
Medvedev said in a televised address he had signed a decree recognising South Ossetia -- the catalyst for this month's five-day military conflict with Georgia -- and Abkhazia.
"Russia calls on other states to follow its example," he said, insisting that the move was in line with the UN charter and international law.
"This is not an easy choice, but it is the only way to save the lives of people."
He said Russia had shown "restraint and patience" with Georgia and had repeatedly sought to resolve the dispute through negotiations.
Medvedev said Russia's proposals to Georgia went unanswered. "Unfortunately, they were ignored also by NATO and the UN."
Western nations strongly criticised Russia.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the Russian move "regrettable" and insisted the two regions "are clearly within the internationally recognised borders of Georgia."
"This contradicts the principle of territorial integrity, a principle based on the international law of nations and for this reason it is unacceptable," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Russia's decision "further inflames an already tense situation" and vowed to build the "widest possible coalition against Russian aggression in Georgia."
"We consider that this is a regrettable decision and we reiterate our commitment to the territorial integrity of Georgia," a French foreign ministry spokesman said.
Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Sweden added their voices to the opposition.
Russia's ambassador to NATO earlier announced Moscow was suspending cooperation with NATO and a visit by the Western military alliance's secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
Tensions have mounted since Russian forces entered Georgia on August 8 to thwart a Georgian attempt to retake South Ossetia. France brokered a ceasefire but the United States and other Western nations have accused Russia of breaching the accord by keeping tanks and troops in Georgia.
The US embassy in Tbilisi announced that a US navy destroyer carrying humanitarian aid was headed to the Georgian port of Poti, but later said it could no longer confirm the operation.
Other US and NATO vessels are also in the Black Sea or heading there and a top Russian general questioned the "extreme level" of NATO naval activity in the region.
"We're bewildered at the extreme level of activity of NATO naval forces in the Black Sea, which continue to increase their numbers," General Anatoly Nogovitsyn told a briefing.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played down Western opposition to the recognition.
"I don't think we should really be afraid of isolation.... I don't think that we are in for any freezing of relations if all sides are guided by the interests of their countries," Lavrov told journalists.
The international community had warned Russia against recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke from Georgia in the early 1990s with Moscow's backing after protracted separatist wars.
Before the announcement, US President George W. Bush had said recognition would undercut the ceasefire agreement and violate UN resolutions.
"I call on Russia's leadership to meet its commitments and not recognize these separatist regions," Bush said in a statement.
There was rejoicing however in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi local people took to their cars, driving around with the flags of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Russia streaming behind them. Men with Ossetian flags draped over their shoulders fired guns in Tskhinvali.
South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity said: "This is a great day in the history of our country and our people," Interfax news agency reported.
But Georgian National Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaia told AFP: "This decision has no legal force. Russia will face harsh political consequences from this."
Tensions remained high in Georgia where Russia has kept its forces.
Georgian police and Ossetian militiamen were locked in a stand-off over a flashpoint town the Ossetians want to make part of their breakaway region.
Georgian officials accused Ossetian militiamen of seeking to move deeper from the town of Akhalgori into Georgia while the Ossetians said Georgian police had taken up threatening positions.

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