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Russia Says Its Troops To Stay In Georgia For Long Time

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia will keep its troops inside two Georgian separatist regions for a long time and their presence is not affected by an agreement to pull out troops, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said.

Russia's intervention last month, in which its forces crushed an attempt by Georgia to retake the separatist South Ossetia region, drew widespread international condemnation and prompted concern over the security of energy supplies.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy won a commitment from Moscow on September 8 to withdraw its forces from undisputed Georgian territory within a month, to be replaced by an international force including a 200-strong European Union contingent.

But there was no explicit mention in the latest deal of the Russian forces inside South Ossetia and the second breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, despite previous Western demands that all troops return to their preconflict positions.

"Russian forces are on the territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia at the request of the presidents and parliaments of those republics and on the instructions of the Russian president," Lavrov told a news conference.

"In the next few days an agreement should be signed which will give a legal basis to the presence of Russian forces. They will be there for a long time, at least for the foreseeable period. That is necessary to not allow a repeat of Georgian aggeression," Lavrov said.

Diplomatic Ties

Russia angered the West last month by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which threw off Tbilisi's rule in separatist wars in the 1990s, as independent states. Nicaragua is the only other state to have recognized their independence.

Both the European Union and the United States have warned Russia its actions in Georgia could lead to serious consequences, but the scope for punitive measures is limited.

Europe depends on Russia for more than one-quarter of its gas supplies, while Washington needs Russia's cooperation in efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Russia said it was morally obliged to send in its military last month to prevent what it called a genocide in the separatist regions by an aggressive Georgian government egged on by its ally, the United States.

Lavrov said the agreement, which came after four hours of tense talks at a castle outside Moscow on September 8, was a vindication for Russia because it included an EU guarantee that Georgia would not use force again against the separatists.

"The responsibility for any attempts of aggression by Georgia will rest with the international presence," he said.

Energy Jitters

The fighting in Georgia worried energy markets because it was waged near the route of an oil pipeline that can pump up to 1 million barrels of crude per day from the Caspian Sea. The pipeline is favored by the West because it bypasses Russia.

A French official said the September 8 talks were so stormy that Sarkozy, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, threatened to walk out when Russian negotiators tried to remove a reference to preconflict positions.

"At that moment, Sarkozy got up and said: 'We're going. This is not negotiable," the official said. The row blew over when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who was out of the room at the time, returned and appealed for calm, the official said.

A Kremlin source though said the general atmosphere of the talks was positive. "I would not say there was anything specifically tense about them," he said.

The final agreement included a commitment to hold international talks on the Georgian crisis in Geneva on October 15.

In an early sign of how thorny those talks are likely to be, Lavrov said Russia would insist that South Ossetia and Abkhazia have a "full place at the table for those discussions" -- a demand unlikely to be accepted by Georgia or Western states.
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.