West slams Russia's move on Georgian regions
PARIS (Reuters) - Western powers united on Tuesday in condemning Russia's recognition of two rebel regions of Georgia as independent states, sharpening a diplomatic standoff between former Cold War foes.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced earlier he had decided to recognise the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, ignoring calls by the West for him to respect Georgia's territorial integrity.
"I think it is regrettable," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah. She added it was "extremely unfortunate" that Russia was pre-empting international talks on the regions' future.
The United States would not let any attempt to recognise the regions' independence through the U.N. Security Council, where Washington has a veto, she said. Her language was reminiscent of the spat over Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia, which Western powers recognised but Russia opposed.
"And therefore, in accordance with other Security Council resolutions that are still in force, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a part of the internationally recognised borders of Georgia and it's going to remain so."
U.S. President George W. Bush was to issue a statement later on Tuesday on the Russian move which the White House called an "unfortunate decision."
Spy scandals had already soured relations between Britain and Russia before Moscow's tanks rolled into Georgia this month to stop a Georgian bid to re-take control of rebellious South Ossetia, and London had the strongest words for Medvedev.
"Today's announcement by President Medvedev that Russia will recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia is unjustifiable and unacceptable," Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement.
"I am holding talks today with international partners and will be visiting Ukraine tomorrow to ensure the widest possible coalition against Russian aggression in Georgia," he added.
Germany, which has strong economic ties with Russia and is traditionally less critical of Russia in groups such as the European Union and NATO, also reacted sharply.
On a visit to Estonia, a former Soviet republic, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Russia's decision was "absolutely unacceptable". She added: "This contradicts principles of territorial integrity as a fundamental right."
EU leaders including Merkel will hold an emergency meeting in Brussels next week to discuss their response to Russia, which has yet to withdraw its forces to their positions before the crisis, as Moscow agreed to do under a peace deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy has had to moderate his language on the diplomatic stage while France holds the rotating six-month EU presidency, but Paris said it opposed Moscow's move.
"(The European Union presidency) firmly condemns this decision," Sarkozy's office said in a statement.
"It calls for a political solution to the conflicts in Georgia. It will examine the consequences of Russia's decision from this point of view," it added.
NATO, whose announcement this year that Georgia would one day become one of its members angered Moscow, rejected Russia's decision. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose observers have faulted Russian elections as falling short of democratic standards, condemned the move.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Ramallah, Jeremy Lovell in London, Ilze Finks in Tallinn, Karin Strohecker in Vienna and Mark John in Brussels)
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)
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