U.S. denies similarity between S.Ossetia, Abkhazia and Kosovo.

The situation in Georgia's breakaway republics is completely different from that in Kosovo, a high-ranking American official said Friday, dismissing the comparison often made by Moscow.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza said there were no parallels between Kosovo and two Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which proclaimed their independence from Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and that the situation with Kosovo was unique.

Russia, which remains entangled in a furious diplomatic dispute with Georgia, has stressed ex-Soviet breakaway regions' right to decide their own fate, and compares them to Kosovo's drive for independence from Serbia.

South Ossetia held a referendum on Sunday, at which the breakaway region's residents voted overwhelmingly for independence from Georgia, despite Western powers' refusal to recognize the vote.

However, Bryza questioned the validity of the referendum, saying only one group of the republic's residents had the right to take part in the vote, while the other did not.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who swept into power on the back of a "color" revolution in 2003, has pledged to bring the self-proclaimed republics back into the fold. His defense minister has also said Georgian troops will celebrate New Year's day in the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali.

Bryza also said the United States would not object if Georgia bought natural gas from Iran, with which the U.S. continues to have a hostile relationship, instead of from Russia, which is demanding a major price hike from 2007.

Bryza said the United States had strong relations with Georgia, and that its potential gas cooperation with Iran would not affect bilateral ties in any way. He said the United States supports Georgia's goal of finding alternative gas sources.

Georgia and Russia have been entangled in a diplomatic feud since the arrest of four Russian officers on spying charges in September. Tensions were already strained at the time over the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and over Russia's import ban on Georgian goods, including wine and mineral water.

Since the latest row began, Russia has cut transport and mail links to its mountainous ex-Soviet neighbor, cracked down on businesses allegedly related to the Georgian mafia, and deported hundreds of Georgians accused of residing in Russia illegally.

[Source: Russian Information Agency, Novosti, Tbilsi, 17Nov06]

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