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West Struggles for Solutions as Caucasus Crisis Simmers

With the situation in Georgia growing ever tenser and the atmosphere between Russia and the West strained, Western diplomats appear increasingly at a loss over how to prevent further turmoil and conflict.

A Georgian man looks at Russian troops leaving the Georgian army base of Senaki, western Georgia, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008.

Russian troops have dug into new positions in Georgia as well as moving into the rebel regions

Russia's parliament voted Monday, Aug. 25, to urge President Dmitry Medvedev to recognize the independence of Georgia's two breakaway regions -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- a move that would bring them back under Moscow's influence but also ratchet up tensions in the battle-scarred region.

The vote sent shockwaves of concern across Europe and beyond with Berlin and current EU president France stressing that Russia must respect the independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia. Germany also called for Moscow to reject the call for support of the rebel regions' succession.

The United States said it was "unacceptable" for the Russian parliament to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and said it was re-evaluating its "entire relationship" with Russia.

Girls ride on a car while holding Russian, left, and South Ossetian separatists' flags in Tskhinvali, the capital of Georgia's separatist-controlled territory of South Ossetia

South Ossetians are showing their support for Russia

German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Medvedev to reject the parliamentary resolution saying it would be at odds with international law.

"I presume that the Russian president will not sign this resolution, because that would bring about a very difficult and critical situation in regards to Georgia's territorial security," Merkel told reporters in Stockholm following talks with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.

She added that vote was "in no way appropriate to either calming or defusing" tensions in the region.

South Ossetia threaten incursion, says Georgia

Those tensions on the ground in the Caucasus region increased further as South Ossetian rebel forces threatened to move deeper into Georgian territory from the town of Akhalgori and demanded Georgian police withdraw from the area, according to statement from Georgia's Interior Ministry.

"A few hours ago, the Ossetians threatened to attack" Georgian police positions south of Akhalgori, ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told reporters on Monday. "They want to extend the area of their occupation."

He accused the South Ossetian officials of "trying to provoke a clash between Georgian and Ossetian forces."

South Ossetian separatist fighters are seen at an unknown location in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia

South Ossetian separatists are said to be preparing attacks

Utiashvili said South Ossetian rebels had gathered 400 militiamen and 16 armored vehicles in Akhalgori. South Ossetian forces took control of Akhalgori, a 45-minute drive from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on August 17.

He said there had been no violence in the town but there had been reports over the weekend of South Ossetian forces seizing livestock from local villagers and looting a school.

The reports prompted the French foreign ministry call on all parties to "guarantee the protection of civilian populations and to abstain from any provocations" while expressing concern over "reports of cases of looting, destruction of houses and intimidation of certain populations, notably in the regions of Tskhinvali and Akhalgori," a spokesperson said.

Before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Akhalgori and surrounding villages were part of South Ossetia. But the province lost control of the area when it broke away from Georgian control during a war in the early 1990s.

Georgian officials have said they fear that, with Russian backing, South Ossetia's rebel government is hoping to regain control of all its Soviet-era territory.

Russian presence fuels fear of new conflict

Such fears have been fuelled by the continuing presence of Russian troops in areas of Georgia and the rebel regions; a presence which has led to the United States to accuse Russia of not honoring its cease-fire agreement with Georgia while maintaining a "large presence" of troops there.

Russian soldiers guard their new military position, at the entrance of the Black Sea port city of Poti, western Georgia, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008.

Many Russian troops are evidently going nowhere

"They are still not living up to the terms of the cease-fire agreement" which Moscow signed with Tbilisi more than a week ago, said US Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman. "They are failing to live up to and honor the terms of the agreement. There continues to be a large presence of Russian forces in Georgia."

Pressure has steadily built on Moscow, which sent tanks and troops into Georgian territory in response to a Georgian offensive on Aug. 7 to retake the breakaway region of South Ossetia, to adhere to the French-brokered peace agreement.

Russia withdrew tanks, artillery and hundreds of troops from their most advanced positions in Georgia on Friday, saying it had fulfilled all obligations under the agreement.

But as of late Sunday Russian troops still controlled access to the key port of Poti located south of the Moscow-backed rebel region of Abkhazia, and had established other checkpoints around South Ossetia, where the conflict began.

Russia flexes muscles on international stage

On the diplomatic front, Russia has reacted to the West's increasing unease and criticism by threatening to cut all ties with NATO and freeze negotiations over Moscow's membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Medvedev said Monday Russia was prepared for a full break in relations with NATO but urged the military alliance to avert such a rupture.

"We will take any decision including up to a complete break in relations" if NATO countries decide to suspend cooperation with Russia, Medvedev was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, talks with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Medvedev and Putin turn their focus to organizations

"There has been a dramatic worsening of our relations, but we are not to blame," he was quoted by Interfax as saying in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. "We would like to have a full-fledged relationship and partnership, but we don't need the illusion of a partnership," the president said during a meeting with Russia's envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin.

Later in the day, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia saw no advantages to WTO membership and should freeze some commitments made during entry talks.

"We propose continuing negotiations within the framework of the working group on WTO accession, but informing our partners of the need to exit some agreements which currently oppose the interests of the Russian Federation," Putin said. "We don't feel or see any advantages from membership, if they exist at all. But we are carrying the burden."

No threat to proposed pipeline, says Merkel

The possible economic fall-out of the current crisis prompted Merkel to bring up the topic of the joint Russian-German gas pipeline during her visit to Stockholm on Monday.

The pipeline, seen as crucial to the increasing energy needs of the European Union, would not be affected by the strained relations with Moscow over the recent conflict in Georgia, Merkel said.

"We have an interest in gas deliveries, but it is not as if we are dependent solely on Russia," Merkel's deputy spokesman Thomas Steg told reporters Monday.

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