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EU Links Russia Talks To Georgia Withdrawal

French President Sarkozy after the EU emergency summit on September 1

French President Sarkozy after the EU emergency summit on September 1

BRUSSELS -- European Union leaders have agreed to postpone talks with Russia on a new partnership pact scheduled for later this month if Moscow have not withdrawn its troops to pre-conflict positions in Georgia by then.

The decision at an emergency summit in Brussels came after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailed Moscow's military intervention over the breakaway South Ossetia conflict as setting a new standard for defending its national interests.

The EU move was a bid to bridge broad differences among its 27 states on how to deal with Russia and came after the bloc dropped talk of sanctions on its largest energy supplier.

"It is clear that, in the light of events, we cannot continue as if nothing had happened," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said after the summit on September 1.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy will travel to Moscow on September 8 to verify whether Russia has fully adhered to a peace plan in time for the next round of partnership talks set for September 15-16 in Brussels, Barroso said.

"We will ask Russia to apply the six-point plan scrupulously," Sarkozy told the news conference, refering to a French-brokered plan which ended hostilities after Russian troops crushed a Georgian attempt to take back South Ossetia.

The new EU-Russia accord is due to regulate relations in the energy sector and on trade. Russian officials have in the past been less than enthusiastic about the long-delayed pact.

"We don't need these talks or this new agreement any more than the EU does," Russia's envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told reporters.

Russian Signal

Separately, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Russia had signalled that it was prepared to withdraw its troops to preconflict positions in neighboring Georgia.

Merkel told reporters that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made the statement in a telephone call with Sarkozy on August 31.

Moscow has withdrawn most of its forces in line with a cease-fire deal but has kept soldiers in "security zones," which include Georgian territory around South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as outside the port of Poti.

Western capitals have demanded Moscow pull its troops to preconflict positions, as it agreed under a French-brokered peace plan. The Kremlin says the troops are peacekeepers needed to protect the separatist regions from new Georgian aggression.

A final summit statement strongly condemned Russia's move to recognize the independence of the rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and urged other countries not to follow the step.

"The European Council is gravely concerned by the open conflict which has broken out in Georgia, by the resulting violence and by the disproportionate reaction of Russia," a French-language version of the statement said. "As long as the withdrawal of troops to their pre-August 7 positions has not been realized, meetings on a negotiation of the partnership accord will be postponed."

Before the summit opened, Lavrov said Moscow's intervention in Georgia had set a new standard for defending its interests.

"Russia has returned to the world stage as a responsible state which can defend its citizens," he declared, adding that the United States must "start adapting" to this reality.

Moscow said it intervened to prevent Georgian "genocide" there. It drew Western condemnation by pushing far beyond the disputed area, bombing and deploying troops deep inside Georgia. The former Soviet republic is strategically important to the West because it hosts oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russia.

In the streets of Tbilisi, more than a million Georgians protested against Russia, many linking arms and waving the red and white Georgian flag.

International Police

France, Germany, and Italy said earlier punitive action against Russia would be premature, but Britain championed calls for the EU to suspend talks on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

"The German position is that we should not break off dialogue with Russia," Chancellor Merkel told reporters earlier as she arrived for the talks.

In an apparently conciliatory step, Russia said it wanted the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the EU to arrange an international police presence in buffer zones between Georgia and its breakaway regions.

The EU is looking to send civilian monitors to Georgia, with officials saying its presence could reach a few hundred staff.

Separately, NATO member Turkey began curbing Russian imports in a move officials said followed delays to Turkish goods at the Russian border since Ankara allowed two U.S. ships to transit the Bosphorus Strait to provide aid to Georgia.

"We don't want to apply these measures, but we are acting reciprocally," Foreign Trade Minister Kursad Tuzmen told state-run news agency Anatolian.

EU leaders also vowed to make reconstruction aid available for Georgia and consider closer ties including talks on a free trade deal and an easier visa regime for its citizens.