MOSCOW (AFP) — Moscow moved closer Wednesday to recognising the independence of two Georgian separatist regions at the centre of Caucasus conflict -- as a diplomatic onslaught with its former Cold War rivals gathered pace.
As Russia warned that the signing of a US-Poland missile defence deal will fuel a new new arms race in Europe, recognition for the two Georgian regions would present a direct challenge to Georgia's sovereignty as backed by the United States.
In Abkhazia, the separatist parliament and president issued an appeal asking Russia to recognise their independence, while the leader of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, told Interfax news agency that his separatist region would do likewise.
Both regions are planning pro-independence demonstrations for Thursday.
US President George W. Bush, meanwhile, has repeated that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are "part of Georgia," adding that "the world must stand for freedom" in the ex-Soviet republic.
But following the signing of the missile deal in Warsaw, Russia fired off a blistering response.
"Such actions create mistrust and spur an arms race on the continent and beyond its borders," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The response came as Moscow said it had decided to freeze its military cooperation with NATO and allied countries until further notice, according to the Norwegian defence ministry Wednesday.
While the White House said it saw some "early signs" of a Russian troop withdrawal from Georgia, it warned the level was insufficient and called on Moscow to speed up the process.
Russian troops poured into Georgia on August 8 to repel an attempt by Georgian forces to retake control of South Ossetia and subsequently occupied swathes of Georgia.
President Dmitry Medvedev promised to withdraw Russian troops, as agreed in a French-brokered plan, by Friday. But there was no evidence Wednesday of a significant pullout, AFP reporters in Georgia and in South Ossetia said.
And the secretary of Georgia's National Security Council told AFP Wednesday that Moscow had created an "illusion" that its troops had withdrawn from Georgia.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke from Georgia during fighting in the early 1990s and tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians were expelled from their homes.
Moscow was infuriated by the Western push to make the Serb province of Kosovo an independent country, regardless of Serbia's objections, and analysts say the Kremlin might use the Georgian separatist problem to strike back.
Medvedev says Russia would "unambiguously" back any decision made by the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia, supported by the United States and leading EU countries, says it will refuse to accept violations of its territorial integrity.
However, the Russian military's push deep into Georgian territory and quick defeat of the republic's tiny army has left Moscow largely in control.
In a telephone conversation Tuesday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Medvedev vowed that all but 500 Russian troops needed for "additional security measures" would be pulled out of Georgia by Friday.
But in Berlin, a German government spokesman described the Russian position as "very unsatisfactory."
"The withdrawal has to be completed by midnight on Friday as agreed," Thomas Steg told reporters.
Meanwhile in New York, Russia circulated its own draft UN Security Council resolution on the crisis in Georgia after blocking another draft proposed by France the previous day on the grounds that it was one-sided.
Russia's UN envoy Vitaly Churkin described Moscow's draft as "a verbatim reiteration" of the ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Moscow.
That accord specifies that combat troops must pull out but an unspecified number of Russian soldiers can remain as "peacekeepers." There is little clarity on their mandate or their scope of operations.
General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of Russia's general staff, said Russian troops were fortifying a " buffer zone " around South Ossetia with eight military posts and a no-fly rule for Georgian aviation.
Revising a previous death toll downwards by 10, he said 64 Russian military personnel had been killed and 323 wounded in the conflict with Georgia.
Separatist authorities in South Ossetia, meanwhile, said that 1,492 residents had been killed in the fighting. Georgian authorities say the death toll there was far lower.
The State Department announced separately that Turkey had approved transit of two US navy ships into the Black Sea to transport humanitarian relief supplies to Georgia.
The vessels were to include two US Navy ships and a US Coast Guard cutter, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.
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