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SUKHUMI -- Separatists in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia have said they did not object to German-mediated talks to solve the conflict over the Black Sea province, but insisted on their own agenda.

Germany is trying to get the sides in the conflict to come to Berlin to discuss a three-stage plan offered by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The West fears the rapidly escalating conflict could turn into a war.

Abkhazia broke away in the early 1990s and says it will not take anything less than full independence. Georgia's pro-Western government has made bringing the region back under its control a priority task.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza flew to Abkhazia on July 25 to press Steinmeier's plan, under which the return of hostages and economic rehabilitation of the province would come before a decision on its future status. Last week the separatists rejected the plan outright.

Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba told reporters after meeting Bryza in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi: "The Abkhaz side does not have any principled objections to participating in the meeting of Friends of the United Nations Secretary-General on the resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

"We did not agree to the proposed dates. We will study when it can be convenient for us and we will inform when we can take part in the meeting," he added.

The five powers acting under the umbrella of the UN secretary-general -- Germany, Britain, France, the United States, and Russia -- met in Berlin in June, reaching a "basic understanding" on Steinmeier's plan.

Shamba said talks would be possible if Georgia pulled out its troops from a disputed gorge cutting deep into Abkhaz territory and signed a formal pledge not to attack the region.

"Then we can return to the process of negotiations and resume our talks," he told Reuters by telephone. "We don't think we must rush headlong and try and hold an urgent meeting in the remaining few days of this month."

But he added, "We believe we could meet within a month."

Georgia has refused to sign formal pledges not to attack Abkhazia, saying it did not have any such plans anyway.

It accuses Russia, whose peacekeepers have been patrolling the region since 1994, of backing separatists and planning to annex Abkhazia. It says Russia cannot be impartial and wants its peacekeepers to be replaced by an international force.
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