Russian president in unexpected visit to Georgian rebel region
The unannounced visit came less than a month before the anniversary of the war between Russia and Georgia, after which Russia recognised South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent states.Moscow -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday started a controversial first visit to South Ossetia, the Georgian rebel region at the centre of a brief but intense war with Georgia last year.
The unannounced visit came less than a month before the anniversary of the conflict, after which Russia recognised South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent states.
Hundreds of locals came out to welcome Medvedev with beer, skewered meat and pies in accordance with local traditions, said a spokeswoman for the South Ossetian separatist authorities.
"How else can you greet the man who saved the republic?" she said.
Kremlin spokeswoman Natalia Timakova told AFP that Medvedev was on a "working visit."
On arrival, Medvedev went into talks with the breakaway republic's leader Eduard Kokoity, telling him that his first visit was meant to strengthen Russia's ties with the region.
"I would like to express my gratitude that you invited me to visit the new country, the new state -- South Ossetia, which emerged as a result of difficult dramatic events and which the Russian people truly supported during a difficult moment," Medvedev said in comments carried by Russian news agencies.
"I believe that it is today's first short visit of the Russian President that will lay the foundation for such contacts (and) friendly relations," he said.
Medvedev said Russia intended to help the region revive its economy and improve social conditions and told Kokoity to focus his attention to priority projects in those areas.
"There's also the need to keep up cooperation in the defence area and the appropriate agreements in this respect," Medvedev added.
Kokoity responded: "The people of South Ossetia are grateful to you for your support, the recognition of our state and, as our elders have already said today, we are appreciative of and grateful for saving our small people."
The mountainous Caucasus region -- still largely in ruins and only recognised as an independent state by Moscow and Nicaragua -- remains a major sticking point in relations between Russia and the West.
Russian forces moved into Georgia on August 8, 2008, to repel a Georgian military attempt to retake South Ossetia, whose breakaway administration had long enjoyed extensive support from Moscow.
Russia has since stationed thousands of soldiers in South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia.
South Ossetia broke off from the rest of Georgia in fighting in the early 1990s and received Russian backing for years before Moscow's recognition of its independence last August.
Georgia insists the region remains an integral part of its territory and is backed by the West.