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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States suggested on Sunday that Russia was interested in "regime change" in Georgia after Moscow rejected Tbilisi's offer of a cease-fire in the separatist enclave of South Ossetia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili "must go," the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the Security Council.
Khalilzad then looked straight at Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin and asked if Moscow was looking for "regime change."
"Is the goal of the Russian Federation to change the leadership of Georgia?" he said.
Churkin did not directly address the question but said there are leaders who "become an obstacle."
"Sometimes those leaders need to contemplate how useful they have become to their people," he told reporters later.
"Regime change is purely an American invention," he said. "We're all for democracy in Georgia."
Russian troops took the capital of South Ossetia earlier after a three-day battle as Georgian forces retreated and the Tbilisi government offered a cease-fire and talks.
In Moscow, Lavrov said the departure of Saakashvili, who was re-elected by popular vote early this year, was not a must to solve the crisis but that Russia no longer saw him as a partner.
Khalilzad told reporters the telephone call between Rice and Lavrov was "disturbing," adding that the days of overthrowing European governments by force were over.
Churkin insisted Russia was not out to take over South Ossetia. "Let's state clearly that we are ready to put an end to the war, that we will withdraw from South Ossetia, that we will sign an agreement on non-use of force," he said.
The U.S. envoy said he would introduce a U.N. resolution condemning Moscow, even though Russia is a permanent council member with the power to veto it. He was meeting later with British, French diplomats and other allies on the council.
The council has been unable to take any action in four emergency meetings on the crisis in as many days due, though the heated exchanges have been reminiscent of the Cold War.
Georgian envoy Irakli Alasania told the Security Council that Churkin's comments were all "Soviet propaganda" and said Russia intended to repeat what it did in Chechnya.
Moscow plans to "erase Georgian statehood and exterminate the Georgian people," he said. Churkin in turn accused the Georgians of "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing".
Khalilzad said Russia was waging "terror" in Georgia.
"We must condemn Russia's military assault on the sovereign state of Georgia ... including the targeting of civilians and the campaign of terror against the Georgian population," he said.
Khalilzad also accused Russia of preventing the withdrawal of Georgian forces from South Ossetia to prolong the conflict and prevent Georgia from laying down its arms.
"Since Russia is impeding Georgian forces from withdrawing, rejecting a cease-fire and continuing to carry out military attacks against civilian centers, its claims of a humanitarian purpose clearly are not credible," Khalilzad said.
Churkin was furious that Khalilzad used the word "terror".
"This statement, ambassador, is completely unacceptable, particularly from the lips of the permanent representative of a country whose actions we are aware of, including with regard to the civilian populations in Iraq and Afghanistan and Serbia," Churkin told the council.
Editing by Philip Barbara