BAKU (Reuters) - U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney said on Wednesday the United States had a "deep and abiding interest" in its allies' security in the Caucasus, while Russia said U.S. support for Georgia was stirring up instability.
The United States later announced $1 billion in aid for rebuilding Georgia after last month's five-day war with Russia, a move likely to further strain ties with Moscow.
On a visit to Azerbaijan, Cheney also said the United States must work with the oil-producing ex-Soviet republic to create additional energy export routes to Western markets.
Cheney made his comments on the first leg of a tour including Georgia and Ukraine which analysts say is designed to signal that Washington has not turned its back on former Soviet allies following the conflict in Georgia.
The United States condemned Russia for sending troops and tanks to crush Georgia's bid to retake its separatist South Ossetia province. Russia says it was protecting civilians and will defend its vital national interests in the region.
"We've met this evening in the shadow of the recent Russian invasion of Georgia," Cheney told reporters as he sat next to Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev in an official residence overlooking the Caspian Sea.
"President Bush has sent me here with a clear and simple message for the people of Azerbaijan and this entire region: The United States has deep and abiding interests in your well-being and security," he said.
"The United States strongly believes that together with the nations of Europe, including Turkey, we must work with Azerbaijan and other countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia on additional routes for energy exports that ensure the free flow of resources," said Cheney, the highest-ranked U.S. official to visit Azerbaijan since its independence.
Azerbaijan and Georgia form an important link in the chain of a Western-backed energy corridor that bypasses Russia.
The West fears the route could be in jeopardy after the Kremlin sent its troops deep into Georgia, and Azerbaijan's state oil producer has already indicated it will switch some exports to Russian routes because of fears of instability in Georgia.
The United States also hopes to persuade former Soviet Central Asian states to export their oil and gas to markets via routes that bypass their traditional ally Russia.
Cheney discussed the crisis with officials from BP and Chevron, two oil groups involved in a pipeline that pumps up to one million barrels of crude a day -- or about one percent of world output -- from Azerbaijan, through Georgia.
Underlining Washington's backing for Georgia, U.S. President George W. Bush directed federal agencies to expand economic aid, including an enhanced bilateral investment treaty and wider preferential access for Georgian exports.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a $1 billion aid package to help Georgia "survive, rebuild and thrive" after the war with Russia. The package did not include military aid and it was not yet time to look at such assistance, she said.
Separately, the International Monetary Fund has approved a $750 million stand-by loan for Georgia, IMF and Georgian officials said.
Russia rejects Western condemnation of its military intervention and its later recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
And it says Washington helped to spark the conflict by failing to rein in Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
"We need to wait until Mr Cheney is actually in Georgia to see how he assesses the situation," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told a news briefing.
"But all these calls on Tbilisi (by the United States) about the need to restore all of its destroyed military capability and so on do not in any way promote the stabilisation of the situation in the region," he said.
Kremlin criticism of Washington contrasts with the more conciliatory language it uses about the European Union, which on Monday threatened to suspend talks on a partnership pact but rejected sanctions against Russia, its biggest energy supplier.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who holds the EU's rotating presidency, is to visit Moscow and Tbilisi for talks on the standoff next week.
The Kremlin said Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev discussed Georgia by phone on Wednesday. Medvedev said the EU had adopted a "generally balanced" approach but expressed regret the bloc failed to identify Tbilisi as the aggressor in the conflict.
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