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Venezuela's Chavez promises to help Abkhazia, South Ossetia to seek international recognition

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez promised to call on his Latin American allies to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two separatist Georgian regions considered autonomous states by just four countries around the world.

Chavez met with Abkhazia leader Sergei Bagapsh and South Ossetia's Eduard Kokoity in Caracas, and agreed to back their fight for international backing of their independence from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

"I'm sure we, together with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, will be able to build strong relations with Latin American nations such as Paraguay, Uruguay, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina," Venezuela's leftist leader said.

Chavez called Abkhazia and South Ossetia "new republics that are working hard for their development."

Venezuela is one of only four countries — including Russia, Nicaragua and the small South Pacific island nation of Nauru — that have recognized Abkhazia as an independent republic.

Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war and has kept troops there. Georgia and many Western countries say the military presence amounts to Russian occupation.

Venezuelan officials signed a series of agreements with the visiting delegations to establish formal diplomatic relations and evaluate proposals for cooperation in areas ranging from energy to trade and agriculture.

Earlier Friday, in an interview with The Associated Press, Bagapsh said he was seeking closer ties with Venezuela and help from its state oil company in looking for crude in Abkhazia.

Bagapsh said he sought Venezuela's help persuading more Latin American governments to recognize Abkhazia, but acknowledged those efforts could be difficult because the United States does not consider his region a separate country and has allies in Latin America.

"We understand that recognition is a long and difficult process, and we understand that the United States has much influence in the region," Bagapsh said.

Bagapsh played down the Russian presence in Abkhazia, saying that there are 1,800 Russian soldiers in Abkhazia who help with border security and that their numbers are relatively insignificant.