NATO extends warm support for Georgia

BRUSSELS, Belgium: The NATO allies supported Georgia in its military confrontation with Russia and said Tuesday the Caucasus nation stays on course to one day join their alliance — a prospect Russia strongly opposes.

Meanwhile, Russia's NATO envoy said it's time for Georgia to surrender its claim to the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.

The 26 NATO ambassadors, at a meeting with the Georgian envoy to the alliance, reiterated "in very strong terms" support for a sovereign, independent Georgia, said NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

He told a news conference the allies "condemned and deplored (Russia's) excessive, disproportionate use of force."

De Hoop Scheffer welcomed comments by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he had ordered an end to the fighting in Georgia, but said he could not confirm that has happened. If true, "this would be good news. But this is, of course, not enough," said De Hoop Scheffer.

Russia's five days of air and land attacks left Georgia's army retreating and some of its military bases and towns in flames. Despite Medvedev's call, Georgia said Russia's military attacks had not stopped Tuesday.

De Hoop Scheffer said the NATO allies want a formal cease-fire; a return of all Russian and Georgia forces to the positions they held on Aug. 6, a day before hostilities broke out over South Ossetia; and a rapid launch of aid to alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

He called Georgia "a friend ... and a highly respected partner of NATO."

Georgia wants to join the alliance, but at an April summit the NATO leaders failed to agree on that, putting the issue off until December. The United States, Canada, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia want Georgia to join, but France and Germany are wary of that for fear of rattling Russia, which strongly opposes NATO's eastern expansion.

The issue of Georgia's NATO membership remains "very much alive" and is up for a decision in December, said De Hoop Scheffer.

He also said there will soon be a NATO-Russia meeting, as requested by Moscow, but it has to be "properly prepared."

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's NATO envy, said at a separate news conference that Moscow wants Georgia to stay out of South Ossetia, the province that gained de-facto independence in 1992.

"The issue is closed. There is no discussion (about Georgia's claim over South Ossetia). We are not going to see them any more there," said Rogozin. He demanded Georgia sign an agreement disavowing the use of force.

The NATO ambassadors met only with Revaz Beshidze, the Georgian envoy to the alliance, who asked for political and military support.

He said the repair or replacement of equipment, especially a radar installation destroyed in a Russian air strike on Monday, would be "a first step" in providing military assistance. He also said he wanted to see NATO take on a more active political role in the search for a cease-fire and a disengagement of forces.

"We received all solidarity from the alliance for my country, and I have the feeling there was full understanding of the deep and difficult situation," said Beshidze.

He said Russia's military operation proved NATO "made a big mistake" by not approving a pre-membership "action plan" for Georgia this year.

He said his country was now occupied, making it all the more necessary to receive a fast lane to NATO membership. "That's why we ask (NATO) to reconsider the new circumstances and the new situation in terms of security in this area," said Beshidze.

___

Associated Press writer Arthur Max contributed to this report.

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