Merkel says shares Georgian concerns over Russia

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany shares Georgia’s concerns about Russian actions in the breakaway region of Abkhazia and is ready to play an active role in settling the dispute, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday.

Speaking at a news conference with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Berlin, Merkel backed the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the region but said alternatives could be explored.

“We support, I want to say this very clearly, the territorial integrity of Georgia and we share the concern about specific steps from the Russian side,” Merkel said.

“We also say that from all sides there must be considered reactions, that there can be no intensification of the conflict and that the Russian peacekeeping mission should continue until new variants can be found in talks.”

Tensions between Georgia’s pro-western government and Moscow have risen in recent months over two pro-Russian regions -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- that broke away from Georgian control in the 1990s.

Georgian police detained a group of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia earlier this month, accusing them of transporting weapons without carrying the correct documents.

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The peacekeepers have been in Abkhazia since the end of a separatist war and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called the arrests “provocations”.

Merkel said she would ensure the dispute was raised with Moscow at a European Union-Russia summit later this week and said Germany was prepared to play an active role in talks.

Saakashvili pledged to seek a negotiated solution and said he was encouraged by Medvedev, who took over the presidency from Vladimir Putin in May, calling him thoughtful and gentle.

But he said the situation on the ground had worsened since Medvedev took office, suggesting Putin was influencing policy.

Saakashvili was in Berlin to lobby Merkel for her support in Georgia’s showdown with Russia and to try to overcome her objections to his country’s membership in the NATO alliance.

At a NATO summit in Bucharest in April, Merkel played a key role in preventing Georgia being put on a path to membership.

“Georgia will be a NATO member one day,” Merkel said. But she made clear that progress was needed on Georgia’s territorial disputes and said she was looking for democratic institutions to be developed and the opposition brought into parliament.

Writing by Noah Barkin; editing by Elizabeth Piper