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Europe

Germany Presses for End to Caucasus Crisis

On the eve of a meeting with Georgian President Saakashvili, German Chancellor Merkel once again urged both Moscow and Tblisi to end all hostilities and work on implementing an EU-brokered peace plan.

Georgian refugees walk past a Russian tank in the village of Igoeti, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Tbilisi, Georgia

The conflict has hit civilians caught in the crossfire the hardest

German government sources said on Saturday, Aug 16, Merkel would press for a complete cessation of hostilities and a permanent political solution to the Caucasus conflict in a closed-door meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tblisi on Sunday.

"The ceasefire has to be verifiable and permanent," German news agencies quoted a government spokesman as saying.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with Russian President Medvedev

Merkel, left, didn't mince words with Medvedev

Merkel's meeting with Saakashvili comes two days after the chancellor met Russian President Dimitry Medvedev in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The chancellor openly criticized Russia's military action in sending troops into South Ossetia and further into central Georgia around the city of Gori, saying it was "disproportionate in some aspects."

Former chancellor blames Georgia

Merkel underscored in the meeting with Medvedev that "the basic point for any political solution to the conflict must be Georgia's territorial integrity."

On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier reiterated that Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty could not be questioned.

"Georgia's territorial integrity remains the basis of German policy," Steinmeier told newspaper Welt am Sonntag.

He was referring to statements by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who described calls to respect Georgia's territorial integrity as "just talk" that one "should forget."

Russian Prime Minister Putin with fomer German Chancellor Schroeder

Former German Chancellor Schroeder, right, was and is good friends with Russian Prime Minister Putin

Steinmeier added that Russia had crossed a limit with its bombardment of Georgia proper but said it was pointless to assign blame in the conflict.

His view was at odds with comments by former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. In an interview with news magazine Der Spiegel, Schroeder called President Saakashvili a "gambler" and said he had triggered the war.

The crisis began when Georgia sent forces last week to retake South Ossetia, a pro-Russian province that threw off Georgian rule in the 1990s. Moscow responded by sending troops into Georgia.

Russia signs ceasefire

Medvedev meanwhile signed the six-point plan mediated by the European Union earlier Saturday in Moscow. Saakashvili signed the document in Tbilisi on Friday in the presence of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The agreement is not a peace settlement but provides the basis for a legally binding text to end the fighting and pave the way for a political solution. The United Nations Security Council is to formalize the six principles of the ceasefire.

One of the key points is the withdrawal of Russian armed forces to positions held before hostilities began in South Ossetia.

Other points include renouncing violence, cessation of hostilities, granting access to humanitarian aid, the return of Georgian armed forces to their usual quarters and the opening of international discussions on the future status of the rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The framework plan falls short of the original proposal by the EU presidency. The draft had called for the "full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia" and the deployment of a EU or UN monitoring mission.

Moscow, Tiblisi locked in war of words

Despite the signing of the agreement by Georgia and Russia, the two sides are still engaged in a verbal war with claims and counter claims flying around.

After the meeting with Chancellor Merkel on Friday, Medvedev made plain that Russia would respond "in the same way" if it felt provoked again.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Saakashvili says Moscow would like to see him out

In an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel published Saturday, Saakashvili said Moscow was determined to see his government toppled.

Russian leaders had told both Sarkozy and Rice that "there will be no agreement on resolving the conflict without my resignation," Saakashvili said.

He accused Russia of using the Georgian military action in breakaway South Ossetia as a pretext to march into the region.

"South Ossetia is not the issue for Russia," he said. "Moscow wants to take over all of Georgia."

On Saturday, Georgia accused Russian troops of blowing up a railway bridge west of the capital Tbilisi earlier in the day, saying its main east-west train link had been severed. Russia strongly denied any involvement.

Georgia said Saturday that 182 people, including 67 civilians, had been confirmed dead in the conflict with Russia. Georgian Health Minister Alexander Kvitashvili said his number of dead and wounded only included people in areas controlled by Georgia. He added there was evidence of mutilation of bodies.

Russian officials have said at least 2,000 people, mostly Russian citizens, were killed in South Ossetia, the breakaway region at the center of the conflict. The figure has not been independently confirmed.

Bush accuses Russia of "bullying"

Speaking in Washington after the return of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice from the Caucasus, US President George W Bush accused Russia of "bullying" behavior in sending armored units into Georgia and bombing Georgian targets from the air.

But Bush admitted that some progress had been made by the signing of the French-brokered peace plan by Russia and Georgia.

"Now Russia needs to honor the agreement and withdraw its forces and of course end military operations," he said.

Bush has consistently held up Georgia as a beacon of democracy in the Caucasus. In a weekly radio address, Bush said America would not leave Georgia in the lurch and said the free world had to stand up for a threatened democracy which had decided in favor of freedom.

Russian troops in the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia

The US has urged Russia to honor the ceasefire and withdraw troops from Georgia

Rice is to go to Brussels next week to meet with NATO foreign ministers and European Union officials on the Georgia crisis.

Asked about possible repercussions for Russia, Rice said there had already been consequences in the expression of "universal concern" on Russia's actions.

"I think that Russia will care about this talk because it is not just talk, it is about Russia's standing in the international community," she said.

Poland says EU too soft on Russia

Amid the flurry of diplomacy to end the conflict, the president of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering urged the EU to be united on the issue.

"The EU has to deal with Russia in a united manner, with determination and at the same time be ready for a dialogue," Poettering told German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Poettering also warned against scrapping the EU's strategic partnership with Russia.

"Plans to isolate Russia won't lead anywhere. You can't isolate a member of the UN Security Council."

Polish President Lech Kaczynski

Lech Kaczynski has pooh-poohed the idea of the EU having a common stance on Russia

However, Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Saturday accused Paris and Berlin of going too soft on Russia because of their commercial ties with that country.

In an interview, Kaczynski said that European Union policy was being decided by Paris and Berlin, without taking into consideration the views of the new EU members that were once under Moscow's control during the Cold War.

"Saying that the European Union has a common policy towards Russia is a joke. Because what policy would that be --submissiveness?" he said.

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