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US Concerned That Tensions Between Russia and Georgia Could Escalate

A U.S. official is expressing concern that tensions between Russia and Georgia could lead to armed conflict. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried used an appearance before a congressional panel Thursday to appeal to both countries for restraint. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

At a hearing before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Assistant Secretary Fried says the United States is concerned that tensions between Russia and Georgia could escalate, although he said he does not believe either of the neighboring countries wants war.

"What we fear is that with so much tension, so many armed people in close proximity and a record of provocations, there can be a spark setting off a wider problem and suddenly you are dealing with deaths, shootings, and an out-of-control incident. We worry about that a great deal," he said.

At issue are two breakaway regions of Georgia -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared their independence in the early 1990's, sparking fighting and the dispatch of Russian peacekeeping troops to the regions. Georgia has accused the Russian troops of backing separatists and has pledged to bring both areas back under central government control.

Tensions rose last month, when Georgia accused Russia of shooting down an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft in Georgian airspace. Moscow has denied any role.

Russia recently moved to increase ties with both regions, and has added to its peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was quoted in Russian news reports Thursday as saying the threat of Russian-Georgian military conflict over Abkhazia remains high. Moscow has threatened to send more troops to Abkhazia if Georgia continues to boost its military presence in the border territory.

Assistant U.S. Secretary Fried appealed to both sides for restraint - but particular to Russia. "We do not like the heated rhetoric that has come out of Russia. Sometimes Georgian rhetoric is hot as well. While we have urged restraint on Georgia, there is a difference between a very small vulnerable country and a very large country that we have to keep in mind. Even though we do counsel restraint on the Georgians, they are the vulnerable party and it is their territory that is under threat," he said.

The House of Representatives has introduced a nonbinding resolution that expresses the sense of the House that the provocative and dangerous statements and actions of the Russian government undermine the territorial integrity of Georgia.

Secretary Fried welcomes the resolution's strong expression of support for Georgia. He says it could give the Georgians the confidence that they are not alone on the matter, and may enable them to work constructively and diplomatically for peaceful resolutions of the Abkhaz and South Ossetia situations.