U.S. Pushing for Abkhazia Talks

TBILISI, Georgia — The United States wants Georgia and officials from its breakaway region Abkhazia to sit down for without preconditions to try to resolve tensions in the Black Sea region, a U.S. envoy said Saturday.

Washington is trying to push a German-backed peace plan aimed at resolving a standoff in Abkhazia, one of the former Soviet Union's most dangerous conflicts.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza met officials in the Georgian capital on Saturday after meeting with Moscow-backed Abkhaz rebels in the local capital Sukhumi.

Abkhazia broke away from Tbilisi's rule in the early 1990s and says it will not take anything less than full independence. Georgia's pro-Western government has made bringing the region back under its control a priority.

Both Georgia and the rebels have set preconditions for sitting down for talks with each other.

"We cannot understand why there are no direct negotiations between Sukhumi and Tbilisi. If the parties are serious about reducing tensions, they do not put preconditions," Bryza told reporters in Tbilisi.

"I think that prospects are pretty good to remove these preconditions. I am somewhat optimistic that the situation is improving," he added.

Western diplomats are trying to get the sides to discuss in Berlin a three-stage peace plan drafted by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The five powers acting under the umbrella of the UN secretary-general — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — met in Berlin in June and reached a "basic understanding" on Steinmeier's plan.

Top officials from separatist Abkhazia are insisting that Georgia must withdraw its forces before any settlement talks can be held.

The statements by Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh and Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba came Friday after meetings with Germany's ambassador to Georgia, Patricia Flor, and Bryza.They also demand that Georgia sign a formal pledge not to attack the region. Georgia has refused to sign formal pledges not to attack, saying it did not have any such plans anyway.

Georgia accuses Russia, whose peacekeepers have patrolled the region since 1994, of backing separatists and planning to annex Abkhazia. It wants the peacekeepers to be replaced by an international force.

Russia says the peace plan is "positive" but says any discussions about the return of refugees to the province can only come after Georgia signs a pledge not to attack the region. Georgia says it wants to see refugees returned to the province.

AP, Reuters