Russia warns of Kosovo "precedent" for separatists

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MOSCOW, Oct 24 (Reuters) A Russian official gave a strong hint today Moscow could recognise two separatist regions of Georgia as independent states if Western powers recognise Kosovo's split from Serbia.

Russian officials oppose proposals to give Kosovo independence, and have said for months it could set a precedent that would encourage separatists elsewhere, including in parts of the former Soviet Union.

But Moscow has never said explicitly if it would respond to recognition of Kosovo by granting recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions of ex-Soviet Georgia which have run their own affairs since separatist wars in the 1990s.

Asked what might happen in the two regions if Kosovo is recognised, the official said: ''My firm feeling is that we will view it as a decision that sets a precedent.'' The official, who did not want to be identified, refused to give more specific details. ''I think from my diplomats' language you will be able to draw your own conclusions,'' he said.

If Russia were to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent from Georgia, it would anger the United States and the European Union, which insist that Georgia's territorial integrity should be respected.

Kosovo's majority Albanian population wants to split from Serbia. Belgrade does not want to give the province independence and Russia has backed that stance.

Russia helped block a proposal from a United Nations envoy to set the province on the path to independence.

The Kosovo issue, which has created a major rift between Russia and Western powers, could come to a head on Dec. 10. That is the date when international negotiators are due to submit their report to the United Nations.

Kosovo Albanians say if there is no agreement after that, they will declare unilateral independence. Washington has indicated it may back this declaration.

Reuters AK VP0218

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