Asia Crisis

Georgia rebel regions toughen independence push

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MOSCOW, Aug 14 (Reuters) - Georgia's Russia-backed rebel regions toughened their push for independence on Thursday, ruling out talks with Tbilisi following a week-long conflict between Russia and Georgia.

Eduard Kokoity and Sergei Bagapsh, self-styled presidents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, flew to Moscow in a surprise visit to thank the Kremlin for its support during the conflict and seek Moscow's guarantees in their drive for independence.

"Before Georgia's aggression, talks with Georgia were possible. .. but now there will be no talks with Georgia," Bagapsh said after talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

"It is not for Uncle Sam to decide on this, not for Europe, but for the people themselves," he told reporters.

Kokoity, speaking alongside Bagapsh, added: "Despite the attack on the people of South Ossetia, our will and desire to achieve independence did not change."

Georgia sent troops to South Ossetia a week ago to regain control over the region but Moscow crushed Georgian forces five days later, drawing condemnation from the West.

Georgia and some in the West suspect Moscow's real aim in the conflict was to punish the West for recognising the independence of Kosovo which Moscow opposed.

Earlier at the Kremlin, Medvedev said Russia supported the two regions' position in talks on their future status but did not explicitly say Russia would recognise their independence.

"You defended your land and justice was on your side. That is why you won, with the assistance of Russian peacekeepers, a reinforced peacekeeping contingent," Medvedev said.

"Please be aware that Russia's position is unchanged. We will support any decisions taken by the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia ... and not only do we support (them) but we will guarantee them both in the Caucasus and throughout the world."

Addressing reporters after signing a six-point plan brokered this week by France, the rebel leaders steered clear of giving a direct answer on the Russian guarantees.

"We mainly discussed the sixth point which talks about Russian guarantees," said Bagapsh but gave no further hints.


Earlier this week Medvedev and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili agreed to a peace plan proposed by French leader Nicolas Sarkozy to end fighting in South Ossetia.

Georgia later removed references to discussions on the future status of the regions, the sixth point. Russia said it did not mind as that did not change the essence of the problem.

"You know when we talk about the sixth point -- the point about the status -- I want you to know and to tell the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that Russia's position is unchanged," Medvedev said.

Medvedev said a legally binding agreement on the non-use of force in the conflict zone should be signed by all parties under guarantees from Russia, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Kokoity said however he would not allow any Georgian and Western forces in his homeland.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the conflict had quashed Georgia's efforts to bring the regions into its fold.

"We have a de facto situation in which people in South Ossetia and Abkhazia simply do not want to live within the same state with a man who sent troops against them," he told Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station.