China Refuses To Back Russia on Separatists

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RUKHI, Georgia — Russian forces turned over 12 Georgian soldiers on the border of one of the separatist provinces under its control today after the short war that outraged the West and brought Moscow’s military deep into Georgia.

Russia, meanwhile, faced the prospect of more international isolation after France said the European Union was considering imposing sanctions, and a Georgian official accused Russian forces of taking part in ethnic cleansing.

The tensions have spread to the Black Sea, which Russia shares unhappily with three nations that belong to NATO and two others that desperately want to, Ukraine and Georgia. Some Ukrainians fear Moscow might set its sights on their nation next.

The release of the Georgian soldiers along the Inguri River separating Abkhazia from Georgia proper was a small conciliatory gesture amid the increasing tensions in the weeks following the end of the fighting. The soldiers, who were detained Aug. 18 in the seaport of Poti, appeared unharmed and some were smiling.

Georgia’s foreign minister said Russian forces and allied militias completed ethnic cleansing in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, but expulsions continued in a buffer zone being created by the Russians.

“They’ve expelled from all villages remnants of the Georgian population — they’ve destroyed their houses, they’ve looted their property, they’ve burned down their fields, forests,” Eka Tkeshelashvili said at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The group’s Russian ambassador, Anvar Azimov, denied the accusations, saying there is no evidence of ethnic cleansing in South Ossetia or Abkhazia, another separatist province.

South Ossetia claimed to have shot down an unmanned Georgian spy plane in its territory. Georgia denied the report. Russian troops remain at checkpoints well into Georgia, saying that a cease-fire agreement allows them to occupy “security zones” outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The five-day war started August 7 when Georgian forces launched a massive barrage on South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, only to be quickly driven out by Russian troops, who then pushed deep into Georgia proper.

Russia has recognized both territories as independent republics, a move denounced in Georgia and abroad. The regions make up roughly 20 percent of Georgia’s territory — and include miles of prime coastline along the Black Sea.

Eight Nordic and Baltic countries — Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — called on Russia to reverse its decision to recognize the independence of the provinces.

President Medvedev, facing isolation from the West, asked China and four ex-Soviet nations to sign a declaration of support for Russia’s role in the conflict in Georgia.

“The presidents reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of respect for historic and cultural traditions of every country and efforts aimed at preserving the unity of a state and its territorial integrity,” the Shanghai Cooperation Organization declaration said.

Mr. Medvedev had appealed to the alliance — which consists of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — for unanimous support of Russia’s response to Georgia’s “aggression.”

“We understand the complicated history and reality of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia issue,” the Chinese said. “In the meantime, in light of our consistent principle and position on issues alike, we hope to see relevant parties resolve the issue properly through dialogue and consultation.”

Mr. Medvedev’s appeal had raised fears in Western capitals of the emergence of a competing strategic alliance to NATO forming around Russia.

Mr. Medvedev also discussed the situation in Georgia’s breakaway regions with President Hu of China. China has traditionally been wary of supporting separatist movements, mindful of its own problems with Tibet and Muslims in the western territory of Xinjiang.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, was quoted by state news agency Xinhua as saying “the situation in the region … should be resolved in dialogue.”

Moscow said NATO’s plans for expansion and Western support for Georgia had caused the new East-West divisions, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin lashed out at the U.S. for using military ships to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia.

NATO rejected Russian criticism of its decision to send navy ships to the Black Sea, saying the four vessels there — from America, Spain, Germany and Poland — were on a routine exercise far from the coast of Georgia.

The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, said some E.U. countries have asked the 27-member bloc to consider sanctions against Russia following its recognition of the breakaway territories.

“Sanctions are being considered … and many other means as well,” Mr. Kouchner said at a news conference. He did not elaborate.

Britain’s foreign secretary said Russia’s actions threaten to undermine stability in Europe.

“We are in a situation which marks a clear end to the relative and growing calm in and around Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” David Miliband said in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

The Kremlin has rejected Western criticism, and even suggested the conflict could spread. It starkly warned another former Soviet republic, tiny Moldova, that aggression against a breakaway region there could provoke a military response.

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