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Georgia asks Olympic visitors to stay away from its breakaway region of Abkhazia

TBILISI, Georgia - Georgia on Wednesday called on foreign visitors to the Winter Olympics to keep out of Abkhazia, a Russia-aligned breakaway territory just south of Sochi along the Black Sea coast.

The International Olympic Committee, however, said there was no reason not to go to Abkhazia.

Abkhazia declared independence shortly after Russian forces crushed the Georgian army in a brief 2008 war, but most of the world still considers it Georgian territory. Only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and two Pacific island nations have recognized Abkhazia as an independent country.

Russia's attempts to facilitate travel across its border with Abkhazia, only five kilometres (three miles) south of Olympic venues, was "a provocation aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia" and "misleading foreign citizens," the Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Asked the IOC's view on Olympics visitors going to Abkhazia, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said "why not."

"The talks and exchanges between the two governments, that's entirely been to the two governments," he said. "In terms of going to Abkhazia ... well if it's safe, people will go there."

Alexandra Kosterina, spokeswoman for the Sochi organizers, refused to comment.

While Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, remain sticking points in restoring diplomatic relations between Georgia and Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that he hoped the Sochi Games would help to mend fences and expressed a willingness to meet with his Georgian counterpart.

The Georgian government responded positively to Putin's overture.

Mutual personal enmity had prevented any meeting between Putin and former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, whose term ended in November.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said a possible meeting between Putin and Georgia's new president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, would be discussed at talks in early March between envoys from the two countries.

___

Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Sochi, Russia, contributed to this report.

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