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Russia Pulls Back Some Forces, But Still Holds Key Positions

  • RFE/RL

A Russian Army checkpoint near the village of Igoeti, 50 kilometers from Tbilisi.

Even as Moscow says it has begun the promised pullback of its forces from inside Georgia, reports indicate Russian forces continue to occupy strategic positions around the country and show little sign of leaving.

According to Russia's Interfax news agency, a Russian armored column left central Georgia on August 21, and a Reuters cameraman in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, saw dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers arriving from the south. Interfax said the column was heading north toward the Russian border.

A Reuters reporter on the border between Russia and South Ossetia said the only heavy armor heading north on August 20 via the crossing was a column of Georgian equipment seized by Russian forces.

But in the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, Russian troops have reportedly dug in at the entrance to the city, with armored personnel carriers and trucks blocking the bridge that is the only land access to the port.

Reports Of Pullout Refuted

Russian forces also continue to hold positions around the key central town of Gori and in Igoeti, about 50 kilometers northwest of Tbilisi on the main east-west highway.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent in Gori has reported that the number of Russian troops there is essentially the same, and he refuted reports of a Russian pullout. He also reported that the Georgians and Russians have made another exchange of prisoners, with 63 Georgian civilians swapped for eight "fighters" captured during the early stages of the conflict.

Moscow has promised to pull its forces back from Georgia proper by August 22 under an EU-sponsored cease-fire, but there has yet to be any other sign of significant troop movement.

The commander of Russian ground forces told reporters that Russia will withdraw troops that were sent to Georgia to reinforce peacekeepers within 10 days.

"The withdrawal of the Russian troops which have reinforced the peacekeepers from the territory of Georgia is going according to plan and will be completed in 10 days," Vladimir Boldyrev told reporters by telephone. "These forces will be withdrawn to Russian territory."

In Washington on August 21, a spokesman for U.S. President George W. Bush said Russia must withdraw from Georgia "now" and that Moscow is in violation of its commitment to do so.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reportedly told French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency, in a telephone conversation on August 19 that all but 500 Russian troops would be pulled out of Georgia over the next two days.

The elderly receive food distributed by a Georgian church in Gori on August 20.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Russia intends to keep 500 troops in a security zone surrounding South Ossetia.

"[On August 22], eight checkpoints will be established in the security zone in which 500 peacekeepers will be deployed, no more than that," Lavrov told reporters. "Other peacekeepers will be moved to South Ossetia, while other troops will be moved to Russia."

Lavrov did not specify how many troops Russia planned to keep in South Ossetia.

"I want to state this clearly and unequivocally that Russia is carrying out in full the six principles agreed between Medvedev and Sarkozy," he said.

The United States accused Moscow on August 20 of dragging its feet, saying the size and pace of the Russian pullout had been insignificant and needed to increase.

The West fears Moscow may use ambiguities in a cease-fire deal and previous agreements to keep large numbers of troops in and around the breakaway region of South Ossetia and step up economic and political pressure on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Saakashvili told AP that Russia was thinning out its presence in some occupied towns, but was seizing other strategic points. He described the Russian actions as "some kind of deception game."

Buffer Zone

Moscow originally promised to begin pulling its forces out of Georgia on August 18, but the West has complained that Russia has not kept its side of the bargain.

The Russians have countered, however, that they are abiding by the terms of the cease-fire agreed last week, because it allows Russia to carry out "additional security measures" in South Ossetia.

Moscow says that includes a zone extending several kilometers beyond the South Ossetian border into the rest of Georgia.

Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of Russia's General Staff, said that this means that "we have the right, under certain conditions, to advance to the boundaries of the whole zone of responsibility."

"At the first stage, [we will set up] eight outposts, less than a battalion, 272 men, and later a second line of outposts already along the administrative border of Ossetia, which, of course, need to be equipped from the point of view of engineering and be prepared for providing support to peacekeepers," Nogovitsyn said.

The buffer zone cuts across Georgia's east-west highway, a key economic lifeline, according to an official map seen by Reuters on August 21.

Nogovitsyn said Russian troops also have a mandate to operate in a buffer zone around Abkhazia, another separatist Georgian region. Nogovitsyn said that zone includes the key road hub Senaki, where the Georgian military had a military base.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent in the central town of Gori says that in a meeting with the commander of Russian troops there, the commander presented a map that seemed to show around 50 Georgian villages near Gori, north of the central highway, as being under Russian control. He said this would ensure Russian control of two villages on the main east-west highway.

Diplomatic Tensions

Against this backdrop, diplomatic tensions have flared between Russia and the West at meetings of NATO and the UN Security Council.

NATO said it was freezing regular contacts with Moscow until all Russian troops leave Georgia. Russia shot back, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying NATO was trying to make a victim of Georgia's "criminal regime."

And at the United Nations, Russia rejected a draft resolution calling on it to withdraw is forces to pre-fighting positions, as required by the French-brokered peace deal.

Moscow said the text did not include and endorse the full six-point peace plan signed by Georgia and Russia.

But if the focus of the crisis is now on the Russian troop withdrawal and upon diplomatic sparring, it could shift to events in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.

On August 20, the Abkhaz parliament voted in favor of asking Russia to recognize the province as an independent state.

Georgian Reintegration Minister Temur Iakobashvili dismissed the appeal as meaningless.

But in Moscow, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, said on August 20 that lawmakers are ready to recognize the independence of separatist regions in Georgia. The council is to hold an emergency session on August 25.

All this sets the stage for yet another escalation of tensions in the Georgia crisis. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are officially recognized internationally, including by Russia, as part of Georgia.

with agency reports
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

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