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Putin alarmed by Georgia's possible use of force

Written by: Staff

MOSCOW, Oct 25 (Reuters) Russia is worried Georgia may try to resolve its problems with two separatist regions by resorting to force and is determined to prevent it doing so, President Vladimir Putin said today.

The Kremlin leader, answering viewers' questions on live television, said Moscow had no intention of taking in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which want to be incorporated into Russia.

Putin said Russia's punitive actions against ex-Soviet Georgia were dictated solely by concern that pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili's actions could lead to bloodshed.

''We are alarmed at the policy undertaken by the current leadership to resolve its territorial problems with the use of force,'' Putin told a viewer raised in Abkhazia. ''This is what concerns us first and foremost and we must prevent it.'' Russia has severed air, land, sea and postal links with Georgia, initially in response to the brief detention last month of four Russian servicemen on suspicion of espionage.

Several hundred Georgians living in Russia have been deemed illegal immigrants and sent home in high-profile deportations.

Putin has intensified his rejection of Western criticism of the moves. He told a Russia-European Union summit last week that Georgia intended to use ''military means'' to restore control over mountainous South Ossetia and Abkhazia, on the Black Sea.

Both regions broke away from Georgia more than a decade ago in two ''frozen conflicts'' left over from Soviet times and now function independently with tacit Russian support.

PREVENTING BLOODSHED In his comments to television viewers, Putin said punitive measures against Georgia had nothing to do with Saakashvili's bid to join NATO despite Moscow's virulent opposition.

''The only reason for our actions is to prevent bloodshed,'' he said. ''We have to use peaceful means to find a way of agreement, a way of compromise.'' He also dismissed any notion that Georgians subject to deportation were being victimised. He cited higher numbers of deportations from elsewhere, without naming the countries.

In Tbilisi, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili pledged to meet Russian officials soon to reduce tensions.

''We have no intention of closing our eyes to the problems between Georgia and Russia,'' he told a news conference. ''The pressure and the blockade must be lifted.'' Putin said Russia had no wish to encourage the separatists, as alleged by Georgia, or incorporate their lands into Russia.

''...We are not looking to expand our territory. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia remains the largest country by territory. We have enough of our own land,'' he said.

There were ''absolutely no grounds to say Russia has some form of imperial trend'' aimed at resurrecting the Soviet Union''.

Russia, he said, had to ''act very carefully'' to balance the right of territorial integrity and self determination.

But he said Russia would also ''observe precedents, including in Kosovo'', the Serbian province dominated by ethnic Albanians where international mediation may lead to a recommendation for independence later this year.


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