Russian troops pulling out of Georgia

Moscow says withdrawal complete, but forces remaining criticized as breach of cease-fire pact

October 09, 2008|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -

Russian troops dismantled checkpoints and decamped from Georgia proper yesterday, abandoning a two-month occupation of broad swaths of the smaller former Soviet republic and pushing the festering conflict to a new status quo.

The withdrawal brings a measure of relief, but sheds little light on the bitter dispute over the future of Georgia's two breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia plans to leave thousands of troops stationed in the rebel regions, which Moscow has recognized as independent states and whose residents hold Russian passports. Georgia, meanwhile, still aspires to bring the lands back under central government control.

Georgia and the West argue that Russia's plans to leave its enlarged forces in the rebel regions, where it has long maintained peacekeeping forces, violate a French-brokered cease-fire deal. With tensions high, several unsolved bombings have erupted in the breakaway regions.

Russia and Georgia were bickering over whether the troops had fully withdrawn yesterday.

The move was incomplete because Russian soldiers hadn't relinquished their grip on the disputed town of Akhalgori, said Alexander Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's national security council. Moscow considers Akhalgori part of South Ossetia.

"All we expect them to do is to quietly withdraw from regions [where] they have never been before, and regions that have never been under any control but the Georgian government's," Lomaia said in a telephone interview. "Unless they withdraw ... we are not able to concede that they have met the Oct. 10 deadline" set by the cease-fire accord.

But Russian officials made it plain that, in their view, the withdrawal was finished. A European Union monitor also told the Associated Press that Russia appeared to have withdrawn from most of Georgia proper.

Russian news media carried a statement by Gen. Marat Kulakhmetov, who is in charge of Russian troops near South Ossetia, saying the pullout had been fully completed.

Under the French-brokered deal, Russian forces had until tomorrow to abandon posts on land seized during the summer war. The soldiers had been controlling a rural run of villages and farmlands in the wake of August's five-day conflict, which cranked up neo-Cold War tensions by pitting U.S.-backed Georgia against Moscow.

On Aug. 7, Georgia launched an operation to bring South Ossetia to heel. Russia intervened with a punishing land and air assault. At the height of the offensive, Russian troops sent tanks well into Georgia proper to within 25 miles of Tbilisi, the capital. The Russian soldiers later pulled back but kept a tight grip on the "security zone" abutting South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have been largely autonomous since the early 1990s.

Russia went on to unilaterally recognize the independence of the breakaway republics. So far, only Nicaragua has joined Moscow.

The United States and Europe have harshly criticized Russia for the use of heavy force during the conflict and for failing to respect Georgian borders.

Georgia is expected to demand Russia leave the breakaway republics during an EU-sponsored conference in Geneva next week. Moscow is unlikely to comply.

The European monitoring mission could not immediately confirm Kulakhmetov's statement that Russian troops had fully withdrawn from six checkpoints outside South Ossetia. They would likely be unable to verify the withdrawal until today at the earliest, said a mission spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity because of rules about talking to the news media.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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