July 9, 2008 / 12:00 PM / 11 years ago

New surge in Georgia tension before Rice visit

TBILISI (Reuters) - Russia blamed Georgia for a surge of violence in two breakaway regions on Wednesday as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to the tiny Caucasus mountain state with a message of support.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks during a joint news conference with Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin after their meeting in Sofia July 9, 2008. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Underlining the volatility of a country that the West sees as a vital energy corridor, Georgian forces clashed with rebel troops in the breakaway Abkhazia region on Wednesday and Tbilisi said two military aircraft had trespassed in its airspace.

Rice was expected to voice support for Georgia’s pro-Western government and its bid to join NATO, but her trip took place against the backdrop of a growing row between Tbilisi and Moscow and an upsurge in violence on the ground.

“The United States considers Georgia to be a good friend,” Rice told reporters in Bulgaria, the latest stop on a European tour that will move on next to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

“There have been a number of moves recently by the Russian Federation that in fact have not been helpful in terms of the frozen conflicts there with Georgia and Abkhazia.”

Earlier, Russia accused Georgia in the most explicit form to date of being behind attacks including a cafe bomb in Abkhazia that killed four and an exchange of fire in a second rebel region, South Ossetia, that killed two separatists.

The two regions are internationally recognised as part of Georgia but threw off Tbilisi’s control in separatist wars in the 1990s and now run their own affairs with Russian support.

“The actions of Tbilisi present a real threat to peace and security in the South Caucasus and put the region on the edge of a new armed conflict with unpredictable consequences,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

BATTLE FOR INFLUENCE

Georgia accused Russia of trying to annexe the two breakaway regions this year after Moscow reinforced a peacekeeping contingent in Abkhazia and established semi-official ties with the separatists.

The “frozen conflicts” have become the frontline in a broader tussle between Moscow and Washington for influence over the South Caucasus, a belt of land that hosts a Western-backed pipeline shipping oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets.

Russia is fiercely opposed to Georgia’s NATO ambitions, saying the appearance of a new alliance member on its south-western border would threaten its security.

On a previous leg of her trip, Rice angered Moscow by signing a deal with the Czech Republic to host elements of the missile shield Washington wants to build in eastern Europe.

The Georgian leg is also likely to irritate the Kremlin: U.S. officials say Rice will discuss Tbilisi’s NATO bid and the separatist conflicts when she meets Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Temur Iakobashvili, Georgia’s State Minister for Reintegration, said two military planes violated Georgian airspace near South Ossetia. He did not identify the aircraft or give any further details.

Georgia has in the past accused Russian fighter jets of flying over its territory, though Moscow has denied that. A Russian air force spokesman declined to comment.

In the Kodori Gorge, a regular flashpoint, Georgian security forces clashed with Abkhaz separatists. Iakobashvili said four separatists were killed, but the breakaway region’s administration said none of its men were killed.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Sofia; James Kilner and Tatiana Ustinova in Moscow and Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Dominic Evans

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