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Pacific Island Of Nauru Recognizes Georgian Rebel Region

An aerial view of Nauru

An aerial view of Nauru

SUKHUMI (Reuters) -- The tiny Pacific island of Nauru today became the fourth country to recognize the Russian-backed rebel Georgian region of Abkhazia as independent, in defiance of the West.

Russia has been trying to secure international recognition for the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which most of the world regard as part of Georgia, since crushing a Georgian assault on South Ossetia in a five-day war last year.

"Today at 10 a.m. [0700 GMT] in the presidential administration, Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nauru, Kieren Keke, signed an agreement on the establishment of diplomatic relations," the Abkhaz Foreign Ministry press service said.

Until today, only Venezuela and Nicaragua had followed Russia's August 2008 recognition.

Russia's respected "Kommersant" daily reported on December 14 that Russia had promised financial aid to Nauru to sweeten the deal.

The Nauru Foreign Ministry could not be reached by telephone.

Nauru, an island of 21 square kilometers, gained independence in 1968 and joined the United Nations in 1999 as the world's smallest independent republic, according to the "CIA World Factbook." It is 14,000 kilometers from Abkhazia.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgian rule in wars in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and have run their own affairs ever since.

After mounting tensions, U.S. ally Georgia launched an assault on South Ossetia in August 2008, drawing a devastating Russian counterstrike in a five-day war.

Russian forces now control the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and patrol Abkhazia's stunning coastline, once the playground of the Moscow elite and where Stalin's dacha still stands.

Most Abkhaz and South Ossetians hold Russian passports.

Abkhazia is dependent on Russia for more than half its budget, as well as for pensions, trade, and investment.

Nauru's decision to recognize followed an election at the weekend that returned Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh for a second five-year term with a convincing 59.4 percent of the vote.

The opposition cried foul but Russian election observers said Abkhazia had passed the democratic test of elections.

Some Abkhaz, who pride themselves on a history of resistance to stronger powers, accuse Bagapsh of handing too much influence to Russia. The West shunned the December 12 election and Georgia said it was a farce.