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Georgia says Russia trying to undermine Rice visit

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia on Wednesday accused Russia of sending fighter jets into its airspace to undermine a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is expected to signal firm support for the pro-Western state.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice listens to Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov (unseen) in Sofia July 9, 2008 after she was awarded with the Bulgarian "Stara Planina" medal. REUTERS/Oleg Popov

A U.S. official traveling with Rice to Tbilisi said a simmering confrontation between Georgia and Russia over two breakaway regions could lead to a catastrophe, and that Moscow should realize it is no longer Georgia’s imperial master.

Russia made no comment on the allegations it had flown into Georgian airspace. Russia’s foreign ministry said Tbilisi was stoking tensions in the volatile region by orchestrating acts of violence in the separatist regions.

The two regions -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- lie in an arc of land the West sees as a vital route for exporting oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets, and where Washington and Moscow are competing for influence.

Rice arrived in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi on Wednesday. She was to meet Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili over dinner, and have more talks on Thursday.

“Russia needs to realize that the empire is gone. Austria-Hungary is not coming back. The Ottoman empire is not coming back and the Soviet empire is not coming back,” the U.S. official, who did not want to be identified, told reporters.

“It’s our belief that a military cycle of confrontation will simply develop a momentum of its own and could lead to a catastrophe in the region,” he said on board Rice’s plane.

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Asked what he meant he said: “A renewed cycle of fighting, which would be horrific.”

The deputy commander of Georgia’s military, Zurab Pochkua, said four Russian jets had spent a total of 40 minutes in the air over South Ossetia on Tuesday night.

A spokesman for Russia’s air force declined to make an immediate comment. Russia has denied allegations in the past that its jets flew into Georgian airspace.

Officials in Tbilisi said Russia was ratcheting up tension because it wanted to sabotage talks they said Rice would be having on new proposals for resolving the separatists conflicts.

“It’s a well-known policy of the Russian Federation to arrange provocations to coincide with high-level diplomatic activities,” Georgian Foreign Minister Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili told reporters.

Earlier, Russia accused Georgia in the most explicit form to date of being behind attacks this month including a cafe bomb in Abkhazia that killed four people and an exchange of fire in South Ossetia that killed two separatists.

“THREAT TO PEACE”

The two regions are internationally recognized as part of Georgia but threw off Tbilisi’s control in separatist wars in the 1990s and now run their own affairs with Russian support.

“The actions of Tbilisi present a real threat to peace and security in the South Caucasus and put the region on the edge of a new armed conflict with unpredictable consequences,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Georgia this year accused Russia of trying to annex the two breakaway regions after Moscow reinforced its peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia and established semi-official ties with the separatists.

Speaking in Bulgaria before she flew to Tbilisi, Rice said the United States regarded Georgia’s territorial integrity to be inviolable -- a clear signal to Moscow.

Additional reporting by James Kilner and Tatiana Ustinova in Moscow and Niko Mchedlishvili in Tbilisi; writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Jon Boyle

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