Clinton vows support for Georgia, slams Russian 'occupation'
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reassured Georgia on Monday with a pledge of steadfast support and called on Russia to end its "occupation" of two breakaway Georgian regions.
"The United States is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Clinton said at a joint news conference with President Mikheil Saakashvili during a visit to Tbilisi.
Clinton also urged Moscow to abide by a ceasefire agreement that stipulates its forces must return to positions held before the 2008 Georgia-Russia war over the rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"We continue to call for Russia to abide by the August 2008 ceasefire commitment... including by ending the occupation and withdrawing Russian troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to their pre-conflict positions," she said.
Responding to Clinton's statements, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Georgia must negotiate with its rebel republics of Abhkazia and South Ossetia without the involvement of a third party.
"Some believe that it (South Ossetia) is occupied, others believe it is free," Putin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
"That is the subject of a dialogue between the people of Georgia and South Ossetia. This dialogue must be carried out without referring to a third party."
"They must not look for a solution elsewhere," Putin said.
Earlier, Clinton said the United States would continue to denounce Russia's military presence in Georgian territory despite Washington's "reset" in relations with Moscow, which raised concerns in Tbilisi.
"We continue to object to and criticise actions by Russia which we believe are wrong and on the top of the list is the invasion and occupation of Georgia," Clinton said in a speech to women leaders.
Saakashvili said he was encouraged that the US was continuing to stand by Georgia despite the improved ties with Moscow.
"There is no secret about it, of course some people were worried what it (the reset) might mean," he said.
"We see it's done exactly the right way, it's a value-based policy and that's why we all love America.... Ultimately if reset leads to a more modernised Russia that's only good for all of us."
Clinton also urged further reforms in Georgia, saying they were the key for it to regain control of the rebel territories.
"The more vibrant, effective a democracy and economy Georgia becomes, a greater contrast there will be between South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia," she said in her speech.
Clinton was on the final stop of a tour of eastern European and Caucasus region countries that has also taken her to Ukraine, Poland, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
She also met with opposition leaders in Georgia, who have accused Saakashvili of stepping back from democratic reforms after coming to power in the country's 2003 pro-Western Rose Revolution.
"We had very substantial discussions about fundamental problems in Georgian democracy," opposition leader Irakli Alasania told AFP after the meeting.
Clinton left Tbilisi for the return trip to Washington shortly after the meeting with the opposition.
Saakashvili enjoyed extremely close ties with former US president George W. Bush, who famously declared the country a "beacon of liberty" in a 2005 speech to thousands of cheering Georgians in central Tbilisi.
Georgia has even named a main road from the airport after Bush.
Relations have cooled under President Barack Obama, however, after Saakashvili's international reputation was damaged by a 2007 crackdown on opposition protesters and by his handling of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia.
US officials have nonetheless repeatedly voiced support for Georgia's territorial integrity after the 2008 war, which saw Russian forces pour into the country to repel a Georgian military assault on Moscow-backed South Ossetia.
After the war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, a move that has been followed by only a handful of countries.
It has also since established permanent military bases and deployed hundreds of troops and border guards in the regions.
The two rebel regions issued statements after Clinton's visit denying they were under Russian occupation and denouncing her use of the word.
© 2010 AFP