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S. Ossetia: 99% back independence

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TSKHINVALI, Georgia (AP) -- South Ossetians voted overwhelmingly for independence in their second referendum since breaking away from Georgia in the early 1990s, officials in the tiny mountainous region said Monday, in a vote that neither the United States nor Europe intends to recognize.

Russia has also stopped short of recognizing the vote, but analysts say the results of Sunday's vote will bolster Moscow and its efforts to keep Georgia -- a key U.S. ally in the strategic Caucasus region -- from moving any further out of Russia's shadow.

Election officials in South Ossetia said 99 percent of voters approved independence for the tiny Caucasus Mountains region, which split off from Georgian government control in 1991-1992 war that killed more than 1,000 people, displaced tens of thousands and resulted in the region's de facto independence.

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, who won re-election in a simultaneous vote, vowed that the region would achieve international recognition eventually.

"Recognition is a lengthy process and we will act in accordance with international law," he told reporters Monday.

In South Ossetia's main city, Tskhinvali, jubilant young men drove around late Sunday waving yellow-red-and-white flags and fireworks went off as officials staged a folk dance concert for a large crowd.

In the Georgian capital Tbilisi, authorities made few public comments on the vote, instead focusing on a parallel referendum being held among the minority ethnic Georgians living South Ossetia, who number about 14,000.

South Ossetian leaders are seeking eventually to join with their brethren across the border in the Russian republic of North Ossetia.

Russia, meanwhile, has granted passports to most residents and is locked in a bitter diplomatic dispute with Georgia, which accuses it of seeking to annex the province along with another breakaway region, Abkhazia.

Sunday's vote will not change South Ossetia's status because Georgia does not recognize it as legitimate. A similar plebiscite in 1992 was not recognized by any country, and the United States and Western European countries said they would not recognize this one, either.

"The 'referendum' contradicts Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders," the European Union said Monday in a statement.

Terry Davis, head of the 46-nation Council of Europe, called the referendum "unnecessary, unhelpful and unfair" because ethnic Georgians were not given the right to vote in it.

Analysts said that the plebiscite could be used by Russia to keep up the pressure on its poor southern neighbor through the threat of granting recognition to South Ossetia.

"The ideal for Russia is to maintain the status quo for the next two to three years until new leaders come to power in Georgia with whom Moscow can build friendly relations," said Maxim Yusin, foreign editor of leading Russian daily Izvestia.

Georgy Nodiya, an analyst with the Caucasus Institute for Peace and Development, agreed that the referendum vote would strengthen Russia's leverage over Georgia, particularly if Kosovo is allowed to separate from Serbia.

Russia has signaled that the fate of U.N.-administered Kosovo, where many seek independence from Serbia, could serve as a potential precedent for South Ossetia.

Election officials said nearly 95 percent of the region's 55,000 registered voters had cast ballots.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has forged strong ties with the United States with the aim of throwing off historic Russian dominance. He has vowed to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia to heel, despite strong Russian backing for them.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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Residents celebrate the independence referendum in Tskhinvali.

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