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Russian Troops Dig In For Long Stay In South Ossetia

JAVA, Georgia (Reuters) -- On a hillside in South Ossetia, Russia has built a garrison of brick and concrete that sends a clear signal to Georgia and the rest of the world that it has no intention of leaving here any time soon.

Two months after Russia and Georgia fought a war, thousands of Russian troops remain inside the two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a force Moscow says is there to keep peace but which Tbilisi calls an occupying army.

With its barracks, canteen, and helicopter landing strip, the base near the village of Java represents a powerful symbol of Russia's presence on what Tbilisi and most other countries consider to be Georgian territory.

Igor Konashenkov, aide to the commander of the Russian military's ground forces, said he did not like to call it a base, which in Russian makes it sound temporary.

"It's a garrison," he told reporters on a visit organized by the Russian armed forces this week. "It will hold part of a military group of more than 3,000 people."

Russian troops this week pulled out of security zones adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in line with a French-brokered cease-fire deal but they have no plans to withdraw from the breakaway regions themselves.

The base sits on a hill between South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali and the border with Russia. It is designed to accommodate a brigade, or up to 2,000 men, and most of the facilities were built after the war in August.

It is dominated by six single-story barracks buildings, built out of red brick and with 24 windows along each side. These are all fitted with modern double glazing -- an unusually homely touch by the Spartan standards of Russia's military.

One afternoon this week, soldiers were being served a four-course meal of soup, salad, stewed chicken, and fruit in a new canteen building with space for several hundred people.

In contrast with the dirt tracks found in most places in South Ossetia, roads and surfaces inside the base are paved with concrete slabs.

Armored personnel carriers stood in a parking lot outside the entrance to the base and next to that four Mi-25 heavy helicopter gunships, nicknamed "Crocodiles" in the Russian armed forces, waited on a grass landing strip.

Adding to the air of permanence, a wooden pergola with a bench has been erected so off-duty soldiers can sit and smoke.

New Violence

Georgia says Russia will not have honored the cease-fire deal until it pulls back to positions held before the war -- which would mean dramatically cutting the force it has in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and dismantling its new bases.

But Russia says it is already in compliance with the cease-fire. It says it plans to station about 7,600 soldiers in the two regions, more than double the prewar force.

The Kremlin says the soldiers are there at the invitation of the South Ossetian and Abkhaz authorities, which Moscow -- so far joined only by Nicaragua -- views as sovereign governments.

The Russian soldiers on the ground have their own explanation for staying in Georgia.

They say new violence could break out and the 300-strong force of unarmed European Union cease-fire monitors now patrolling the areas around South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not up to the job of containing it.

"You have these so-called monitors from the EU who carry no arms and only sport their nice fleece jackets," a senior Russian officer said.

"The question is, will they be able to prevent, or rather contain, new violence? You have to draw your own conclusions. I myself do not believe they can."