February 16, 2008 / 3:26 PM / 11 years ago

Georgia dismisses Russian remarks on rebel regions

TBILISI, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili has dismissed a Russian Foreign Ministry statement saying Moscow would defend the rights of its citizens living in the Georgian breakaway provinces Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The Russian ministry’s remarks were a part of its Friday statement on Kosovo.

Russia opposes granting independence to Kosovo and has linked its status to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saying any recognition of Kosovo would create a legal precedent that could be followed by others and would influence Russia’s policy towards the Georgian regions.

Some observers have said Russia might grant them recognition in response to Western states recognising Kosovo.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from ex-Soviet Georgia in fighting in the 1990s. Russia provides financial aid to both regions and the majority of residents hold Russian passports. Moscow has peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Saakashvili told a government meeting: "Even if there are any Russian citizens in Abkhazia and (South Ossetian capital of) Tskhinvali, they live there illegally, and we do not recognise their (Russian) citizenship."

"According to our law, people living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are our citizens," he added.

On Friday, the Georgian Foreign Ministry summoned Russian ambassador Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko to hand him a note of protest over the statement. (Reporting by Niko Mchedlishvili; Writing by Tanya Mosolova, editing by Mary Gabriel)

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