Asia Crisis

Russia's Medvedev visits South Ossetia, defying West

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MOSCOW, July 13 (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev flew to the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia on Monday for his first visit since last year's war, ignoring a plea by Washington to respect Georgia's borders.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose government claims the region, described the visit as an "immoral gesture".

Medvedev was greeted by thousands of cheering supporters in the regional capital Tskhinvali. He held talks with regional leader Eduard Kokoity, inspected military hardware at a Russian military base and promised economic and military aid.

"I want to express my gratitude for inviting me to visit this new country ... which appeared as a result of difficult, dramatic events," Medvedev told Kokoity in televised comments.

"I think that this first short visit by a Russian president will create a foundation for... friendly relations."

Russia recognised South Ossetia and the rebel Georgian region of Abkhazia as independent countries after its army repelled a Georgian attempt to retake South Ossetia in a five-day war last August.

Only Nicaragua followed Moscow in recognizing the regions' independence and Georgia's Western partners have said recognition would violate Georgia's internationally recognised borders.

During talks in Moscow last week, U.S. President Barack Obama asked Medvedev to respect Georgia's territorial integrity in a clear reference to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Speaking to journalists in Turkey on Monday, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili described Medvedev's visit as "a shameful and immoral stain" on the Russian leadership.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement it would lodge an official complaint with Moscow.

During talks Medvedev pledged economic and military aid for the region of 70,000, where thousands are still homeless and thousands more unemployed.

"We have a whole series of projects to revive the economy and the republic's social sphere," Medvedev told Kokoity.

"There is a need for support and cooperation in defence."

Reporting by Conor Humphries and Margarita Antidze; Editing by Robin Pomeroy