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Georgia's Breakaway South Ossetia Region Backs Independence

Preliminary results from Sunday's voting in Georgia's breakaway province, South Ossetia, show that voters overwhelmingly support independence for the small Caucasus mountain region, bordering Russia. The vote - not recognized officially by any nation - is expected to weaken already-strained relations between Georgia and Russia.

Bella Pliyeva, head of the South Ossetia Central Elections Commission, says early results show that 99 percent of the region's 55,000 registered voters backed independence from Georgia. They also re-elected incumbent President Eduard Kokoity, in a parallel leadership vote.

South Ossetia's separatist leadership has said the referendum marks a first step toward international acceptance and eventual union with Russia - moves Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili says he will never permit.

The vote is not recognized by the international community, or Russia, although Russian state television has been leading local broadcasts Monday with news of the election.

Russian election monitor, Pavel Vayleen, says Sunday's polling was free and fair and reflects the resounding will of South Ossetia's people for independence.

The West's main election monitoring body, the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe, boycotted the poll, calling it counterproductive.

Georgian officials accuse Russia of giving de-facto support to the referendum as a means of punishing Tbilisi for its pro-Western course, which includes bids to join the European Union and NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin rejects the charge and says Georgian officials should concentrate their attention closer to home.

Sunday's vote was the second in the region since the end of a civil war in 1992. That conflict killed more than 1,000 people and displaced tens of thousands of others.

International mediators warn the referendum will only serve to heighten tensions in the region, already running high after Georgia arrested and then expelled four Russian officers it accused of spying. Russia, in turn, exacted a punishing transport and postal blockade and has since threatened to double the price it asks Georgia to pay for Russian oil and gas.