The United States called Thursday for a fresh push to resolve separatist conflicts in Georgia, as Russia said it put warplanes in the air there this week and warned Tblisi against joining NATO.
Speaking to reporters here, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington was working “very closely” with Germany and others to get a Georgian peace process back on track.
“I’m going to call for discussions to be held at a higher level, at least at the level of political directors or perhaps beyond that, because this is a serious situation,” Rice said, calling for an end to violence in the region.
She spoke after meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose drive to reassert control over separatist regions is strongly backed by the United States.
Briefing reporters aboard Rice’s plane after she left Tbilisi, a senior State Department official said political directors of the US, German, British, French, Russian and Georgian foreign ministries could meet this month on the crisis.
The official, who asked not to be named, said Washington’s proposal also calls for the United Nations and the European Union to be represented at the talks — where no venue has been given yet — as well as Abkhaz separatists.
Abkhazia is one of two provinces — the other is South Ossetia — that split from Georgia following brief wars in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and that now enjoy de facto independence.
As Rice was announcing the new US push focusing on Abkhazia, the Russian foreign ministry said that Russian warplanes had conducted overflights of South Ossetia earlier this week.
“The need arose to take urgent and effective measures to prevent bloodshed and to keep the situation peaceful” in the breakaway province, the ministry said in a statement.
“To determine the circumstances, Russian air force planes made a short flight over the territory of South Ossetia.”
The statement marked an unusual admission. Past Georgian accusations of Russian military overflights have been denied by Moscow.
“As subsequent events showed, this step cooled hotheads in Tbilisi and prevented the situation from evolving through use of force, which had become highly likely,” the Russian statement said.
Russia said it had received information indicating that Georgian troops were preparing a military operation in South Ossetia to free four Georgian soldiers arrested Tuesday by authorities in the breakaway province.
Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks in Moscow with the separatist leader of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, and warned afterwards that a a plan to bring Georgia closer to joining NATO would scuttle any peace efforts.
“This could sink a possible resolution” of the crisis, Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency after meeting Bagapsh.
He was referring to US assertions that giving Georgia a so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO membership could help resolve its “frozen conflicts” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
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