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Europe

Russia Backs Georgia Rebel Regions Amid Peace Efforts

Russian President Medvedev met leaders of Georgia's separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions and vowed Moscow would back them in talks on their future status. Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts continue.

An Ossetian soldier uses a mobile phone as he walks near a destroyed tank in Tskhinvali, capital of Georgian breakaway enclave of South Ossetia

Human Rights Watch has reported "terrifying scenes of destruction" in South Ossetia

Eduard Kokoity and Sergei Bagapsh, self-styled presidents of South Ossetia and Abhkazia, respectively, held talks with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev at the Kremlin on Thursday, Aug. 14, amid a diplomatic drive to forge peace between Georgia and Russia.

Speaking after the two leaders signed a six-point peace plan brokered this week by France to end fierce fighting between Georgia and Russia, Medvedev said Moscow fully supported their position.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

Medvedev said Russia fully supported the positions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on their future status

"Please be aware that Russia's position is unchanged. We will support any decisions taken by the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia… and not only do we support them but we will guarantee them both in the Caucasus and throughout the world," Medvedev was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Ceasefire under strain

Medvedev and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili this week agreed to a peace plan drafted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to end fighting in South Ossetia.

However, the accord leaves unclear where Russian and Georgian troops are allowed to be in Georgia. Russia says the peace agreement gives its troops a central role in the disputed areas as peacekeepers while Western leaders are pressing for an international force to serve in that capacity.

The truce came under strain on Wednesday after Georgia said Russian tanks had rolled into Gori in a blatant violation of the ceasefire.

A damaged building in Gori, Georgia

A damaged building in Gori

According to reports, witnesses said hundreds of South Ossetian rebels, accompanied by Russian military personnel, torched and looted homes near Gori, a key city linking Georgia proper with the separatist South Ossetian region to the north.

Russia has denied the allegations. On Thursday, the Georgian interior ministry confirmed its forces had begun to take control of Gori as the Russian military pulled out.

Tensions remain high

However, tension remained high between Russia and the West, with Moscow warning Washington it would have to choose between its partnership with the Kremlin or supporting Georgia.

Russia on Wednesday also said that while it would talk with the European Union about the truce agreement, it refuses to deal directly with the Georgian president.

"We still have diplomatic relations with Georgia, we have millions of Georgian nationals who are Russian citizens and living happily in Russia," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told BBC television. "But we won't directly talk to Saakashvili, we won't do that. We offered him peace but not friendship."

Russia has accused Georgia of violating the truce by failing to pursue an "active withdrawal" from South Ossetia, where Moscow says 2,000 civilians were killed in the fighting.

US steps up diplomatic efforts

Amid the standoff, the US stepped up diplomatic efforts to help calm the crisis.

President George W Bush dispatched Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice to the region and urged Russia to abide by the ceasefire agreement.

"To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe, and other nations and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis," Bush said. "The United States of America stands with the democratically-elected government of Georgia," he added.

President Bush flanked by Rice, left, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates

President Bush flanked by Rice, left, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Rice was to hold talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country holds the EU's presidency, in Paris on Thursday.

She was to continue on from Paris to the Georgian capital later Thursday to hold talks with President Mikheil Saakashvili. She will not visit Moscow, however.

Humanitarian aid arrives in Georgia

Meanwhile, the first US military plane carrying medical supplies, shelter, bedding and cots landed in Tbilisi, officials said. Bush said more aid was on its way.

Saakashvili said the humanitarian aid deliveries meant the US military would take control of Georgian ports and airports, a claim quickly denied by the Pentagon.

The Georgian president also criticized the US's initial response to the crisis, saying early statements from Washington on Moscow's push into South Ossetia were "too soft."

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