US confronts Russia as Cheney flags 'deep' interest in ex-Soviet zones

BAKU (AFP) — The United States and Russia squared off Wednesday as Vice President Dick Cheney said Washington had a "deep" interest in the ex-Soviet Caucasus, a key energy corridor he said must be developed.

Moscow meanwhile suspended visas for Georgian citizens and said it would pull troops out of Georgia only when a French-brokered peace plan was fully implemented.

Speaking in the oil-rich former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, Cheney said: "President Bush has sent me here with the clear and simple message for the people of Azerbaijan and the entire region.

"The United States has a deep and abiding interest in your wellbeing and security."

Cheney, the most senior US official to visit the Caucasus region since Russia and Georgia fought a brief war last month, said access to energy resources there and in Central Asia was a top concern for Washington.

"Energy security is essential to us all and the matter is becoming increasingly urgent," Cheney said after meeting Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

"Together with the nations of Europe, including Turkey, we must work with Azerbaijan and other countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia on additional routes for energy exports that ensure the free flow of resources," he said.

US officials simultaneously announced a one billion-dollar (690 million-euro) aid package for Georgia following the conflict with Russia .

Cheney's comments came a day after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sealed a new Central Asian gas pipeline deal in Uzbekistan.

They were a clear signal that Washington did not intend to allow Moscow to regain the unchallenged control over the politics and natural resources of the Caucasus and Central Asian regions.

Cheney was due to travel Thursday to Georgia for a meeting with that country's beleaguered, US-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili, a leader that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev referred to Monday as a "political corpse."

And NATO separately announced that its chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer would visit Georgia on September 15-16 and could discuss aid for the country. The visit was planned before the conflict erupted.

Russia and Georgia meanwhile closed down diplomatic exchanges, though the parliament in Tbilisi formally lifted the state of war in most of the country that was declared when the hostilities broke out last month.

"The Russian embassy in Georgia is no longer functioning. The consular section is closed as well, pending future directives from Moscow," embassy spokesman Alexander Savonov told AFP in Tbilisi.

In Moscow, Georgia's charge d'affaires Givi Shugarov told Interfax news agency that his embassy had also ceased diplomatic functions though the consulate was still working to serve Georgians living in Russia.

Russia sent tanks and troops into Georgia after a Georgian offensive on August 7 to retake the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Moscow withdrew most of its forces under a French-brokered ceasefire, but thousands of Russian troops that Moscow terms "peacekeepers" remain in the two rebel regions and in a buffer zone.

Moscow announced Wednesday that 71 Russian soldiers died in the conflict.

The West has been infuriated by Russia's actions in Georgia. The European Union this week called off talks on a new EU-Russia accord until Russia withdraws its troops but did not impose sanctions.

Putin on Tuesday welcomed that outcome, saying "common sense" had prevailed among the EU leaders.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev will seek backing for his country's intervention at a Moscow summit of seven ex-Soviet states on Friday.

Russia hopes the meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation -- Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- will build on another gathering in Central Asia last week that included China, said presidential advisor Sergei Prikhodko.

Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke by telephone Wednesday ahead of a meeting between the two next week to discuss Georgia.

Medvedev told Sarkozy he welcomed the "balanced decision" taken by EU leaders at a summit this week but said the final document did not "pass judgement on Georgia's aggressive actions," the Kremlin said in a statement.

Sarkozy is to travel with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana for talks in Moscow on Monday to discuss the ceasefire agreement.

Sarkozy is expected to announce an international conference on securing stability in the region, a French diplomat said.

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