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Rice Heads To Tbilisi As Abkhazia Heats Up

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Prague
A charged atmosphere awaits U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she travels to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

The top U.S. diplomat is arriving days after the simmering conflict in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region turned bloody, with an explosion that left four people dead.

Rice begins her day with a quick stopover in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, where she is due to receive a state honor for her role in freeing Bulgarian medics jailed in Libya and for her support of Bulgaria's NATO bid.

From there, however, Rice will trade in plaudits for trickier diplomatic tasks.

'Strategic Partner'

From Sofia, she travels on to Tbilisi for talks with officials amid mounting tensions over the breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria tells RFE/RL's Georgian Service that separatist conflict zones will be among the topics up for discussion.

"The United States is our strategic partner, and Secretary Rice's visit is extremely important for the relations between our two countries," Bokeria said. "We will obviously discuss issues that are important for our national interests, as well as the strategic partnership of the two countries, and the conflicts will be discussed, among other issues."

Abkhazia in recent months has become the central symbol of broad discord between Georgia and Russia. Moscow's foothold in the separatist region is deeply unsettling to Tbilisi, which needs to maintain regional stability as it pursues its bid to enter NATO.

Moscow has made no secret of its desire to keep Georgia out of the Western military alliance. Speaking July 8 at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague, Rice acknowledged there will never be a time when NATO expansion is "acceptable" for the Russian leadership.

"But of course, it is a decision for the alliance, not for Russia," Rice said. "And what we've tried to convince Russia of is that NATO is no threat to it. Quite the opposite. NATO has been friendly to Russia; there is a NATO-Russia Council. And the extension of democracies on Russia's borders should not be a threat to it."

Stoking Tensions

Rice's visit is irritating to Moscow on a number of fronts. In Prague, she signed a deal for a radar base to be built on Czech territory as part of a controversial U.S. missile-defense system opposed by Russia. She has also used the trip to criticize Russia for stoking tensions in Georgia.

Moscow responded in kind, with the Foreign Ministry issuing a statement on July 9 warning that Georgia's behavior could bring the South Caucasus region to the brink of armed conflict, and criticizing countries "who shield the provocateurs and blame everything on Moscow" -- an apparent reference to the United States.

Russia on July 8 tabled a draft resolution at the United Nations which called on Georgia to defuse tensions in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a second breakway region which this week sparked a scandal of its own with the arrest of four Georgian police officers.

Rice's visit to Georgia comes in the wake of the first major bloodshed in a year and a half in Abkhazia, which has maintained de facto independence from Tbilisi since the early 1990s.

Four Killed

Four people were killed in a cafe bombing on July 6, spurring a frantic exchange of accusations and denials from the Georgian, Abkhaz, and Russian sides about who was responsible for the blast.

Since then, Abkhaz leaders have pulled out of the first tentative steps toward a negotiated settlement and rejected outright a U.S. call for an international police force to enter the conflict zone.

Speaking June 8 at a session of the National Security Council, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Georgia remained committed to a "peaceful and diplomatic" settlement of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts.

David Darchiashvili, the chairman of Georgia's parliamentary committee for European intergration, said Rice's visit is an important part of such efforts.

"It's very important to achieve some progress regarding [Georgia's] conflict regions," he said. "What we had until now for years and years with regard to the peace process was the imitation rather than real effort. Therefore, at this point, the visit of one of the U.S. leaders is the unambiguous expression of the support which Georgia enjoys from the U.S. in these issues."

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report
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