Wed, Nov 15, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Russia, Georgia clash over South Ossetian ballot

INDEPENDENCE?Tension between Moscow and Tbilisi looked set to increase at the two gave different responses to Sunday's independence referendum

AFP , TBILISI

Almost 100 percent of voters in Georgia's small separatist territory of South Ossetia have opted for independence, according to partial results released on Monday, underlining a diplomatic rift between Russia and the West over the region's future.

Results received from 78 percent of polling stations following the Sunday referendum showed that 98 to 99 percent of voters had cast their ballots in favor of independence, election officials said.

No independent confirmation was available.

As local residents celebrated what the rebel authorities trumpeted as a victory, with cars honking horns and flying South Ossetian flags, political leaders in Tbilisi discounted the ballot as irrelevant and the EU reiterated its previous rejection of the vote.

Russia, which backs the rebel authorities without explicitly endorsing full-blown independence, welcomed the referendum as a "free democratic process" in a foreign ministry statement released on Monday.

"However Georgia or several Western powers try to disparage the importance of this event, it has a symbolic character all the same," the statement said.

In Georgia, the vote was angrily dismissed.

"Everybody needs to understand, once and for all, that no amount of referendums or elections will move Georgia to give up that which belongs to the Georgian people by God's will," Georgi Tsagareishvili, head of the Georgian parliament's Industrialists bloc, said in televised remarks.

On a visit to Moldova, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said the country would resolve its territorial problems peacefully and added that Tbilisi had "done everything possible to prevent the referendum provoking any kind of deterioration in the region."

The Finnish EU presidency released a statement saying the vote "contradicts Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders."

"The situation in South Ossetia did not allow the free expression of the popular will," the statement said.

The leadership of the tiny region in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains maintains however that the referendum is a first step towards international acceptance and eventual union with Russia.

"Integration with Russia is a priority of South Ossetian policy," the region's de facto leader Eduard Kokoity said on Monday, according to Interfax, after preliminary ballot counts showed he won a landslide in "presidential" elections held parallel to the independence poll.

Polling data could not be independently confirmed. It was unclear how many, if any, ethnic Georgians living in South Ossetia took part in the vote in this province of some 72,000 people, according to South Ossetian statistics.

The only Georgian organization allowed to monitor the poll said it was marred by falsifications.

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