Russia, Georgia start talks seen lasting years

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By Jonathan Lynn

GENEVA, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Russia and Georgia started talks on Wednesday to resolve tensions over breakaway regions that led to a war in August, and one senior official predicted negotiations could take years.

"I expect a result in many, many years forward if we start today constructively," said Maksim Grinjia, deputy foreign minister of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of Abkhazia.

"It's a long process. We have to start one day," he told reporters.

A first set of talks, brokered by the European Union and other international bodies, failed to get off the ground last month because of disagreements about whether representatives from South Ossetia and Abkhazia should take part, and how.

Since the five-day war ended there have been shootings and explosions along the new de facto border of Georgia and South Ossetia with both blaming each other for stoking conflict.

Russian defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov said on Tuesday that Georgia was trying to build up its military which could spark even greater instability in the region than in August.


Much diplomatic sleight-of-hand has been needed to get all the parties to sit around the same table, and most participants declined to comment as they entered United Nations headquarters in Europe for the meeting.

Moscow insists that the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that it backs are present, while Georgia is wary of anything that would amount to international recognition for the breakaway regions and insists that regional representatives still loyal to Tbilisi also take part in the talks.

Grinjia said the talks would take place in working groups, rather than a formal plenary session, with officials taking part as representatives and not official delegations.

The United States, which sees Georgia as an ally in the volatile Caucasus, is also participating.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama called on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Monday to assure him of Washington's continued support.

Grinjia said the two working groups would discuss security guarantees and refugees.

Human rights group Amnesty International estimates that 24,000 ethnic Georgians are unable to return to their homes in South Ossetia and nearby areas, as looting and kidnappings continue along the border.

At the conflict's height around 200,000 people were displaced on all sides, with ethnic Georgians accounting for the biggest group, Amnesty said in a report this week.

The various parties met for an informal dinner on Tuesday.

"It was a nice dinner and a good atmosphere," Grinjia said.

But no one expects the talks to have quick results.

The mediators -- the European Union, United Nations and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) -- hope to gradually build confidence and ease the most pressing problems such as conditions for refugees and continuing violence in a series or repeated meetings.

South Ossetia threw off Georgia's rule in 1991-92.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

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