UNITED NATIONS (AFP) — The United States on Sunday accused Russia of seeking regime change in Georgia as it pushed the UN Security Council to call for a ceasefire in the widening Caucasus conflict.
In highly contentious exchanges with his Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkin reminiscent of the Cold War, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the Council that Moscow was seeking "regime change" in Tbilisi and waging "a campaign of terror" in Georgia.
He later huddled with his European colleagues on the council to finalize a draft resolution that would call for "an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of all forces to the status quo" in the breakaway Georgian enclave of South Ossetia.
Khalilzad underscored the need for Moscow to withdraw the thousands of combat forces it sent to South Ossetia in the past week.
And he said Churkin cited comments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a confidential telephone conversation with his US counterpart Condoleezza Rice earlier Sunday suggesting that the president of Georgia "must go."
"This is completely unacceptable and crosses the line," the US ambassador said. "Russia must affirm that its aim is not to change the democratically elected government of Georgia and that it accepts that territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia."
In his response, Churkin said that the fact that the US side had chosen "to bring up publicly the idea of (President Mikheil) Saakashvili stepping down ... may be an interesting signal."
"Sometimes there are democratic leaders who do things which create great problems for their country," Churkin said. "Sometimes those leaders need to contemplate how useful they have become to their people."
From Moscow, Lavrov denied that Russia was seeking to oust the Georgian government and, in comments relayed to AFP by the Kremlin, said his remarks to Rice had been "incorrectly interpreted."
Despite the harsh rhetoric, a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Western ambassadors were making progress on a text they hoped to discuss with the Russian delegation.
He said progress was made in Sunday's consultations between the Western envoys on a French draft based on a plan which French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner plans to present to the parties.
"We are making progress," the diplomat said, adding that the Western envoys would hold another meeting Monday morning to consider possible amendments and take into account "new developments on the ground."
The draft, that could be presented to other council members late Monday or Tuesday, dovetails with Kouchner's three-point peace plan involving "an immediate cessation of hostilities; the full respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia" and "the re-establishment of the situation that existed before."
Kouchner arrived in Tbilisi late Sunday and was due to travel to Moscow on Monday on a mediation mission on behalf of the European Union which is currently presided by France.
The sharp words between the US and Russian envoys came during the Security Council's fourth meeting in three days to review prospects for a truce in the conflict that has spread to Abkhazia, another Moscow-backed rebel enclave of Georgia.
Churkin said Russia's action in South Osssetia was "appropriate" as it "could not allow Georgian attacks on civilians and Russian peacekeepers" in the separatist enclave which he claimed amounted to "genocide."
He also dismissed US claims that the Russian military in Georgia has waged a campaign of "terror."
"This is completely unacceptable, especially from the lips of a representative of a country whose actions we are aware of in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia," he responded.
Khalilzad however warned Moscow that its "relations with the United States and others would be affected by its continued assault on Georgia and its refusal to contribute to a peaceful conclusion of the crisis."
Georgia's UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania pleaded for UN "immediate diplomatic and humanitarian intervention" to protect his country from "Russian aggression."
Georgia said it had withdrawn troops from South Ossetia where its assault to regain control of the breakaway territory sparked Russia's military onslaught.
Churkin reiterated Moscow's conditions for agreeing to a ceasefire: a full Georgian withdrawal from South Ossetia and Tbilisi's commitment to signing an agreement to "renounce the use of force" in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Russia has sent thousands of troops into South Ossetia and said it now controlled nearly all the territory, though it insisted Georgian troops were still fighting.
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