Russian president backs peacekeepers in Georgia

MOSCOW Sat Jun 21, 2008 11:06am EDT

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia wants a negotiated end to territorial disputes in ex-Soviet Georgia, but it will not tolerate deliberate attempts to stir up its peacekeeping troops there, President Dmitry Medvedev said on Saturday.

"Georgia is a close neighbor. Existing disputes, including the territorial problem, should be resolved through bilateral negotiations," Medvedev told law students in his home city of St Petersburg, according to Russian news agencies.

Medvedev's comments on the pro-Russian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgian control in the 1990s and want to be recognized as independent states, did not represent a change in Russia's position.

But his language was more diplomatic than that of his predecessor Vladimir Putin, who made some harsh verbal attacks on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Georgian police detained a group of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia last week, accusing them of transporting weapons without carrying the correct documents, a charge Russia denied.

This prompted a general to say Russia might use force if its troops continued to be harassed.

"Even if relations between the countries are not enjoying their best period, any form of pressure is unacceptable," the agencies quoted Medvedev as saying.

"We won't tolerate such behavior in relation to Russian peacekeepers," he added. "They are in Georgia in accordance with international agreements and are conducting themselves properly."

Russia has had peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia since the end of a separatist war in the 1990s and the region is still a source of friction between the former Soviet countries. Georgia claims that the Russia peacekeepers are not neutral and accuses them of siding with the separatists, something Moscow denies.

Medvedev spoke on Wednesday with Saakashvili and said Moscow would not stand for "provocations" against its peacekeepers.

In his remarks on Saturday he said he had also agreed with the Georgian leader to continue what he termed "our constructive dialogue."

Moscow alleges Tbilisi has been preparing to attack Abkhazia to seize back control of the territory, but Georgia's pro-Western government says it has no such plans and accuses Moscow of trying to annex it.

Senior diplomats in the region do not believe either side wants to see a war but are concerned that an unintentional misstep by either side could spiral into an armed conflict.

(Writing by Robin Paxton, editing by Michael Stott and Richard Balmforth)

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