MOSCOW - Agence France Presse
Russia yesterday formally recognised Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in a startling new challenge to the West.
President Dmitry Medvedev announced the move which brought people firing guns onto the streets of the South Ossetian capital, but immediate condemnation from the United States, Britain and France.
Medvedev said in a national television address that he had signed a decree recognising South Ossetia -- the catalyst for the five day conflict with Georgia this month -- and Abkhazia.
"Russia calls on other states to follow its example," he added, insisting that the move was in line with the UN charter and international law.
"This is not an easy choice, but it is the only way to save the lives of people," Medvedev said.
He said Russia had shown "restraint and patience" with Georgia and had repeatedly sought to resolve the dispute through negotiations.
Medvedev said Russia's proposals to Georgia went unanswered. "Unfortunately, they were ignored also by NATO and the UN."
Western nations strongly criticised Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the Russian move "regrettable" and insisted the two regions "are clearly within the internationally recognised borders of Georgia."
"This contradicts the principle of territorial integrity, a principle based on the international law of nations and for this reason it is unacceptable," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
"We reject this categorically and reaffirm Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," a British Foreign Office spokesman said.
"We consider that this is a regrettable decision and we reiterate our commitment to the territorial integrity of Georgia," a French foreign ministry spokesman said.
The Czech Republic and Sweden added their voices to the condemnation.
Russia's ambassador to NATO earlier announced Moscow was suspending cooperation with NATO and a visit by the Western military alliance's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
Tensions have mounted since Russian forces entered Georgia on August 8 to thwart a Georgian attempt to retake South Ossetia. France brokered a ceasefire but the United States and other Western nations have accused Russia of breaching the accord by keeping tanks and troops in Georgia.
The international community had warned Russia against recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke from Georgia in the early 1990s with Moscow's backing after protracted separatist wars.
Before the announcement, U.S. President, George W. Bush, had said recognition would undercut the ceasefire agreement and violate UN resolutions.
"I call on Russia's leadership to meet its commitments and not recognize these separatist regions," Bush said in a statement.
There was rejoicing however in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi local people took to their cars, driving around with the flags of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Russia streaming behind them. Men with the Ossetian flag draped over their shoulders, fired guns in Tskhinvali.
South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity said: "This is a great day in the history of our country and our people," Interfax news agency reported.
But Georgian National Security Council Secretary, Alexander Lomaia, told AFP: "This decision has no legal force. Russia will face harsh political consequences from this."
Tensions remained high in Georgia where Russia has kept its forces.