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Germany

Germany to Mediate in Russia-Georgia Crisis Over Abkhazia

Amid fears that the Abkhazia conflict will escalate into war, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is to mediate this week, beginning a diplomatic swing Thursday, July 17, in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

Georgian soldiers wave while riding in a truck in the high-mountain Kodori Gorge

Georgia is increasing its military spending as the specter of war with Russia looms

Steinmeier would then travel to Sukhumi, the chief town of the Moscow-backed breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, and on to Moscow to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to Foreign Ministry Deputy Spokesman Andreas Peschke on Wednesday.

The German delegation would meet with the de-facto president of the breakaway region, Sergei Bagapsh, in Sukhumi, which is a port city on the Black Sea.

"The goal of the trip is to find with all the affected parties ways out of the logic of escalation, out of this spiral of constantly escalating incidents. It is about building trust and creating the specific conditions for a solution that will be acceptable for all," said Peschke.

Steinmeier would try to build trust and explore a solution acceptable to all parties. In Tbilisi, he would meet with President Mikheil Saakashvili and the Georgian opposition.

"We've been in close and regular contact with all parties," said the spokesman.

Russia and Georgia are at odds over two regions which separated from Georgia in the early 1990s.

Bombings and fly-overs up the ante

A TU22 Russian strategic bomber

Fly-overs by Russian jets have increased tensions

Tensions mounted this month with a series of bombings in Abkhazia, the arrest by another separatist republic, South Ossetia, of four Georgian soldiers and flights over South Ossetia by Russia's air force, which Moscow says are needed to prevent "bloodshed."

Tbilisi has protested the presence of Russian forces in the territories and offers of Russian citizenship to their residents as a de facto annexation of its territory.

Peschke said Berlin had a special responsibility in the conflict. Since 2003, Germany has been coordinator of a panel known as the Friends of the United Nations Secretary General for Georgia. The other members are Britain, Russia, the United States and France.

German road map dismissed by Abkhazia

Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Steinmeier's plan has already been dismissed

Steinmeier is expected to advocate a three-stage German road-map for peace that has already received a cool reception from the Abkhazians.

It proposes a year of confidence-building measures, including an end to violence and a return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia, with a reconstruction phase to follow. The third stage would be to resolve the legal status of Abkhazia.

The plan to settle the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia was rejected out of hand by Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh Monday, according to Russian media.

Steinmeier met with visiting UN chief Ban Ki-moon Tuesday and called Lavrov and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week to discuss Abkhazia.

Lavrov told him that Moscow wanted "both sides to accept obligations not to use force," and for Georgian troops to pull out of the strategic Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, the Russian foreign ministry said.

"The Russian side stressed that to de-escalate the situation in the conflict zone it is necessary to have the sides accept obligations not to use force," the ministry said in a statement.

Georgia for its part accuses Russia of tacit support for the rebels and stoking tensions in both regions.

Russia says NATO plans increase threat

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Steinmeier and Lavrov will hold further talks on Georgia

Lavrov last week held talks in Moscow with the separatist leader of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, and warned afterwards that a plan to bring Georgia closer to joining NATO would scuttle any peace efforts.

"This could sink a possible resolution" of the crisis, Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency after meeting Bagapsh.

He was referring to US assertions that giving Georgia a so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO membership could help resolve its "frozen conflicts" in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

At its latest summit in April, NATO shied away from formally granting a MAP to Georgia and another ex-Soviet republic near Russia, Ukraine, amid opposition from Germany, France and some other European states.

Georgia boosts military spending

Lawmakers in Georgia on Tuesday increased army numbers and boosted defense spending in response to "aggressive actions" from Russia and as part of a bid to join the NATO alliance.

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili

Saakashvili says Georgia faces its biggest threat

"Threat assessment has shown that threats have increased and reached a critical level after Russia's aggressive actions," Givi Targamadze, a member of President Mikhail Saakashvili's ruling party, said in broadcast comments.

"Georgia faces the highest level of threat since independence," he said.

The 15-percent boost in army numbers from 32,000 to 37,000 "will strengthen our defenses and build an army compatible with the NATO criteria," Nicoloz Rurua, also from the United National movement party, said earlier.

The parliament, which is dominated by Saakashvili's party, also approved a government proposal to increase defense spending this year by $209 million (131 million euros) to around $989 million.

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