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Russian Foreign Minister Visits Georgian Rebel Regions

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

SUKHUMI (Reuters) -- Russia has sent its foreign minister to Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia to show support for two separatist territories Moscow has recognized -- a visit that Georgia quickly denounced as a farce.

Sergei Lavrov was the most senior Russian official to go to Abkhazia for at least 15 years and his trip came just over a month after the Kremlin sent troops and tanks into Georgia, drawing condemnation from Western governments.

Lavrov was to have talks with separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh and discuss the opening of a Russian embassy in the capital, Sukhumi, in defiance of the West.

Lavrov was to travel from Abkhazia to South Ossetia, another Moscow-backed separatist region of Georgia, Russian media said.

Russia sent in its troops early last month after Georgian armed forces tried to retake South Ossetia. Moscow said it acted to prevent a genocide against the regions, but Western states accused Russia of a disproportionate use of force.

Russia followed its military action by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Nicaragua is the only country to have matched Russia's recognition.

In Tbilisi, the pro-Western government attacked Lavrov's visit to Abkhazia, a Black Sea region about half the size of Wales that threw off Tbilisi's rule in separatist fighting in the early 1990s.

"This is a farce," Georgian Foreign Minister Ekaterine Tkeshelashvili told reporters. "Russia is trying to create the impression that these territories are independent states."

Cooperation Agreements

Russia is expected this week to sign agreements with both separatist regions on cooperation, including military ties. Moscow says it plans to station about 7,600 soldiers indefinitely in the two regions.

Russia has now pulled out troops from near the Georgian port of Poti, in line with a French-brokered deal to withdraw soldiers from undisputed Georgian territory outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Lavrov's aircraft was the first civilian flight to land at Sukhumi's airport for 15 years. Since the separatist fighting in the 1990s, only the military and United Nations aircraft have used the airport.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer will be in the Georgian capital on September 15 for the inaugural meeting of the NATO-Georgian Commission, set up by the alliance after the war with Russia to underline its support for Tbilisi.

The alliance has promised Georgia and fellow ex-Soviet state Ukraine it will be admitted to NATO, though without a timetable for accession. That pledge has angered Russia, which sees NATO expansion as a threat to its security.