"US provoked Georgia conflict to benefit presidential candidate"

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Moscow, Aug 29 (UNI) Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has accused the US for provoking the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict to secure victory for one of the presidential candidates, saying preliminary reports showed that US citizens may have been present in the combat zone.

''We have serious reasons to believe that American citizens were right at the heart of the military action. This would have implications for American domestic policy. If this is confirmed, we will have grounds to suspect that somebody in the US has created this conflict to aggravate the situation and create a competitive advantage for one of the presidential candidates,'' Putin said in an interview to CNN last night.

He slammed the US for its inability to keep Georgia from attacking South Ossetia, stressing this had damaged Russia-US bilateral relations.

Putin said Russia had hoped Washington would step into the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict and stop Georgia attacking South Ossetia.

The US administration not only failed to restrain the Georgian leadership from this criminal action, but the American side in fact trained and equipped the Georgian army, he added.

Putin stressed that Russia did not attack and cannot be portrayed as an aggressor.

''We did not attack anyone, we were attacked and therefore we need guarantees that we would not be attacked again, and that our citizens would not be killed. They are trying to present us as aggressors,'' Putin told the channel.

Putin said Russia had no intention of turning a blind eye to the killings of its citizens for the sake of membership of the G-8.

On Russia's relations with the West, he said Russia would not use energy to achieve its aims, as it also depended on the stability of its gas supplies.

However, Putin dealt a blow to US poultry exporters, announcing that 19 US companies are to be banned from exporting their products to Russia as they "failed health and safety tests." He also added that 29 other companies had been warned to "improve their standards or face the same ban." The US has dismissed as ''patently false'' accusations by Putin that it helped provoke the conflict in Georgia for domestic political reasons.

''To suggest that the US orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate doesn't sound rational,'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

''Those claims first and foremost are patently false, but it also sounds like his defence officials, who said they believed this to be true, are giving him really bad advice,'' she said.

Diplomatic wrangling over Russia's actions in Georgia continued as the Georgian parliament yesterday urged its government to cut diplomatic ties with Moscow.

The US has also warned Russia of serious consequences for its continued presence in Georgia.

The US is considering scrapping a US-Russia civilian nuclear co-operation pact in response to the conflict, reports said here.

The UN held an open meeting late yesterday to discuss the situation in Georgia but it descended into an angry exchange.

Russian permanent envoy at the UN, Vitaly Churkin accused the Security Council of having double standards over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and of lacking understanding of the conflicts in the separatist Georgian regions.

''Abkhazia and South Ossetia have much stronger grounds for independence than Kosovo,'' Churkin said at the open session.

UNI XC SLD RN1458

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