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Saakashvili Vows Abkhazia Return To Georgia

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York on September 21
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -- The Georgian separatist zone of Abkhazia, which seceded from Tbilisi last year, will once again be part of the former Soviet republic, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told the United Nations.

"It will take time, but Abkhazia will once again be what it was -- the most wonderful part of Georgia," Saakashvili said in the written text of a speech to the UN General Assembly released late on September 24.

Russia crushed a Georgian assault on another separatist enclave, South Ossetia, in August 2008, sending tanks deep into Georgian territory and shaking Western confidence in oil and gas routes running through the South Caucasus.

After the war, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia announced their secession from Georgia. Only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized their independence. (Editor's note: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has also vowed recognition of those breakaway regions' sovereignty.)

Saakashvili has said that he has no pretensions to take back the two regions by force. But he painted a bleak portrait of Abkhazia, which is on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, for the 192-nation assembly.

"Abkhazia today has been emptied of more than three-fourths of its population," he said. "Gardens and hotels, theaters and restaurants have been replaced by military bases and graveyards."

The West condemned Russia response last year as "disproportionate," but also faulted Saakashvili's assault on South Ossetia, which, like Abkhazia, threw off Georgian rule in wars in the early 1990s.

Russia says it was compelled to act to save civilians and its peacekeepers. It says Saakashvili is dangerous, but analysts doubt Moscow has any intention of going to war to oust him.

Despite a cease-fire by which both sides agreed to withdraw forces to prewar positions, Russia has thousands of troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced on both sides. Rights groups said Georgian shelling of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, during the war was indiscriminate, and Russian forces had failed to stop militias from looting and razing Georgian villages.

New Berlin Wall?

Saakashvili cited former Czech President Vaclav Havel in his speech, comparing the presence of Russian troops in his region to Germany in the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall ran through a democratic West Berlin and Communist East that was allied to the Soviet Union.

"As Vaclav Havel and other leading voices of Europe's conscience declared earlier this week, Europe is today divided by a new wall, built by an outside force -- a wall that runs through the middle of Georgia," he said.

He added that that wall "cuts off one-fifth of our territory."

Saakashvili did not explicitly say that South Ossetia would also return to Georgian control, though he did say, "We are resolutely committed to our vision of a sovereign and unified Georgia."

The South Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoity, issued a statement in response to Saakashvili's speech that blamed the Georgian president for last year's war with Russia and said his territory "will never again be a part of Georgia."

Saakashvili has survived months of protests by opponents who accuse him of monopolizing power since becoming president on the back of the 2003 Rose Revolution.

A UN observer mission stationed in Abkhazia since the early 1990s has had to shut down because Western powers failed to persuade Russia to back a renewal of its mandate in the Security Council earlier this year.