Todos

Tension rises over Russia-Georgia conflict

By Elizabeth Piper and Mark Trevelyan

KIEV/TBILISI (Reuters) - Ukraine said on Wednesday itwanted to discuss charging Russia more for the lease of a BlackSea naval base, a move that could aggravate regional tensionsalready enflamed by Moscow's conflict with Georgia.

As the U.S. Navy shipped in humanitarian supplies toGeorgia, Russia said its navy was watching "the build-up ofNATO forces in the Black Sea area" and had started takingmeasures to monitor their activity.

Georgia recalled all but two of its diplomats from Moscowin protest after Russia recognised its rebel South Ossetia andAbkhazia regions as independent and President MikheilSaakashvili urged the West to uphold international law.

"Russia clearly intended this as a blatant challenge toworld order. It's now up to all of us to roll Russianaggression back. If they get away with this, they will carry on... they will also attack other countries in theneighbourhood," Saakashvili told Reuters in an interview.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on Moscow to complyimmediately with his peace plan for Georgia, which Russia hassigned but continues to violate.

Meanwhile his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, saidRussia might have its eye on other neighbouring countries suchas Ukraine and Moldova.

The Georgia crisis has alarmed other former Sovietrepublics with sizeable Russian minorities, particularlyUkraine and the Baltic states.

Russia quickly crushed Georgian forces in a brief war overSouth Ossetia this month, the first time it has sent its forcesinto combat abroad since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russian troops and tanks continue to occupy parts ofGeorgia included in buffer zones it set up around South Ossetiaand Abkhazia, and has ignored Western demands to withdraw fromthem.

It says its troops are needed there to protect civiliansfrom Georgian aggression.

"GRAVE VIOLATION"

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Kremlin leader DmitryMedvedev Russia's presence in Georgia's port of Poti and otherareas outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia "represents a graveviolation" of a ceasefire, her spokesman said.

Russia says the French-brokered agreement allows it tostation troops inside Georgia proper but Russian ForeignMinister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was ready to pull back afteran international monitoring mechanism was in place there.

"We will be ready to make decisions, including in theUnited Nations...on additional increases in the number ofinternational monitors, clarifying their mandate and possiblyother steps with international participation," he said inTajikistan's capital Dushanbe.

While some Western governments have said Saakashvili boreat least partial responsibility for the outbreak of theconflict, U.S. President George W. Bush said recognition of therebel regions by Russia "only exacerbates tensions andcomplicates diplomatic negotiations."

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Medvedev hada big responsibility not to start a new Cold War.

"Russia has not reconciled itself to the new map of thisnew region...We do not want a new Cold War and he (Medvedev)has a big responsibility not to start one," Miliband told agroup of students in Ukraine's capital, Kiev.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko joined Westernnations in condemning the Russian move on Tuesday to recogniseSouth Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states under Moscow'sprotection.

"We are sorry about this decision, for Ukraine it isunacceptable and therefore we cannot support this position," hesaid in an interview with Reuters.

Yushchenko said Kiev wanted to raise the question ofincreasing Russia's rent on its Sevastopol base in Ukraine'sCrimea region, the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet.

Russia has said any renegotiation would break a 1997agreement between the two countries, under which it currentlyleases the base for $98 million a year until 2017.

"We will see how this will develop. We are stickingstrictly to the conditions on the timetable for the Russianfleet's presence there," Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief ofthe Russian General Staff, told a news briefing.

Nogovitsyn accused NATO nations of "ratcheting up tension"in the Black Sea, but said Russia was not planning to increaseits own presence there. "Now we have people flexing theirmuscles, demonstrating force ... We can only regret that."

A U.S. Coast Guard ship carrying post-war aid to Georgiaarrived on the country's Black Sea coast on Wednesday, butbacked down from docking in a Russian-patrolled port.

The cutter Dallas had been due in Poti, where Russiantroops are still manning checkpoints after pushing deep intoGeorgia during the war over South Ossetia. Instead it docked 80km (50 miles) south in Batumi.

The U.S. embassy in Tbilisi originally said the Dallaswould be joined in Poti by a U.S. warship, the USS McFaul,which docked in Batumi on Sunday. But the embassy said late onTuesday that the plan had changed. It did not say why.

"This decision was taken at the highest level of thePentagon," a U.S. embassy spokeswoman told Reuters.

Medvedev has accused the United States of shipping weaponsinto Georgia, a remark the White House dismissed as"ridiculous".

(Additional reporting by Yuri Kulikov in Kiev, MargaritaAntidze in Tbilisi, Niko Mchedlishvili in Batumi, GuyFaulconbridge in Moscow; editing by Dominic Evans/Tony Austin)

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