Georgia Russia Seek Peace Over Rebel Regions

MOSCOW (Reuters)–Russia and Georgia’s defense ministers tried to calm increasingly shrill rhetoric over two breakaway regions on Tuesday by promising to cooperate in the search for a peaceful solution–Russian news agencies reported. Georgia’s determination to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia under central control–spelling the end of a decade of rule by separatists with support in Moscow–has sparked saber-rattling that over the past few weeks threatened to turn into bloodshed.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Russia was ready to hand over two Soviet-era military bases in Georgia–one in the capital Tbilisi and one in the southern town of Akhalkalak.

"In the near future we are prepared to hand them over to the Georgian Defense Ministry–only the Georgian Defense Ministry–under an agreement," RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Ivanov as saying–without giving details of the agreement.

His Georgian counterpart Georgy Baramidze–visiting Moscow for three days–praised his hosts for their approach.

"Russia’s sincerity in the search for a peaceful solution is very encouraging," Itar-Tass quoted him as saying.

"My Russian colleague and I have discussed the situation in the conflict regions and how to minimize the risks for peacekeepers and peaceful citizens. No reasonable country could have any interest in inflaming the conflict," Baramidze said.

The two also said they hoped to renew contacts between their militaries–which Ivanov said "does not need colossal steps–it’s enough just to make an agreement and stick to it."

Baramidze said developing Georgia’s air defenses was one potential area of cooperation.

The apparent thaw comes less than a week after US Secretary of State Colin Powell called for dialogue between the two sides–despite Moscow warning Washington not to get involved.

The United States and Russia are rivals for influence in Georgia–which–despite poverty and a history of ethnic conflict–is strategically placed as a future conduit for massive Caspian oil resources to the energy-hungry West.

Georgia’s US-educated President Mikhail Saakashvili–who won a landslide election in January–has helped to escalate the disputes over the two regions by insisting they must bow to his rule–surrendering their powers and taxes to Tbilisi.

He angered Russia’s last week by saying Georgian forces would sink Russian tour boats plying the Black Sea coast of breakaway Abkhazia–a popular beach holiday destination for Russia’s since Soviet times.

The Vedomosti business daily dubbed him "our Fidel," comparing him to Cuban leader Fidel Castro for his hot-headed rhetoric in defiance of the dominant power in the region.

In a potential twist to the row over one of the regions–Georgian police found the economy minister of the unrecognized South Ossetian government dead in a river on Tuesday. It was not clear if he had crashed his car–found in a nearby gully.

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