Georgia Says It's Prepared to Lift Sanctions on Abkhazia

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgia is prepared to lift an economic blockade on its breakaway territory of Abkhazia, the minister leading negotiations with the state's separatist regions said Friday.

Temur Iakobashvili, Georgian State Minister for Reintegration, did not say what conditions might be attached. Abkhazia has rejected past Georgian offers because they were tied to diluting its claim to independence.

But Iakobashvili, brought into the government in a reshuffle last month, struck a tone that was more conciliatory than the rhetoric from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has vowed to bring the separatists to heel.

Separatist conflicts have destabilized Georgia, a U.S. ally and transit route for energy exports from the Caspian Sea. They have also poisoned relations with neighboring Russia, accused by Tbilisi of backing the separatists.

"I am ready to discuss the question of lifting economic sanctions," the minister said. "We can look at everything, there are no taboo subjects: not sanctions, not the railway," he said.

A rail link between Tbilisi and the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi, has been severed since the separatists threw off Georgian rule in a 1990s war. Georgia's navy also frequently prevents ships from docking in Abkhazia's ports.

"We can discuss all of this, we must do everything to restore relations between us, economic and trade relations," Iakobashvili said.

n Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili will meet with U.S. President George W. Bush next month to discuss the ex-Soviet republic's separatist conflicts and efforts at democratic improvements ahead of parliamentary elections.

Saakashvili's election last month followed a violent crackdown on opponents that damaged Georgia's aspirations to accelerate integration into Western institutions, including NATO.

The White House said Bush and Saakashvili would meet on March 19.