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Russia says pullout will begin

No timetable is given. Merkel, meanwhile, voices strong support for Georgia's desire to join NATO.

August 18, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

TBILISI, GEORGIA — The Kremlin said Sunday that Russia's military would begin withdrawing its forces from Georgia today, though it was not immediately clear how far or how fast the troops would move.

Germany's leader, meanwhile, voiced strong support for this former Soviet republic's desire to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a goal that has fed Moscow's anger toward Georgia and the West.

The Kremlin statement followed repeated U.S. and European calls for Russia to honor a cease-fire agreement it signed Saturday and pull troops out of Georgia proper. But Russia made no mention of leaving the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where it has long stationed peacekeepers.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy both said they were told by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that Russia would begin to redeploy the troops, which were sent early this month into the neighboring country after Moscow accused Georgia of attacking civilians and Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.

"From tomorrow, Russia will begin the withdrawal of the military contingent which was moved to reinforce Russian peacekeepers after the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia," the Kremlin said Sunday in a statement, according to Reuters news agency.

Moscow has made similar commitments in recent days but failed to follow through and sent conflicting signals. On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to spell out a timetable for withdrawal, saying it would take "as long as needed" and was contingent on the Georgian security situation. But Russia's Itar-Tass news service Sunday quoted an anonymous defense official as saying some units had already begun to pull out.

Meanwhile, Moscow showed no sign of loosening its grip in areas of Georgia its military now controls. Dozens of supply trucks and tanks were streaming south out of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, toward Gori, a town on Georgia's main east-west highway. All along the road, Russian soldiers had erected checkpoints and set up tent cities. They had also taken up residence in an abandoned Georgian military base.

Georgia's Foreign Ministry also has said that Russia has placed medium-range missiles in South Ossetia capable of reaching Tbilisi, the Georgia capital.

Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed skepticism about the Russian promise to withdraw.

"I just know that the Russian president said several days ago Russian military operations would stop. They didn't. The Russian president told President Sarkozy that the minute the cease-fire was signed by [Georgian] President [Mikheil] Saakashvili, Russian forces would begin to withdraw," she said. "They didn't.

"Now he has said that tomorrow, midday, Russian forces will withdraw and withdraw to their pre-Aug. 6-7 lines. This time I hope he means it."

Merkel, the second Western European leader to visit Georgia since the start of the crisis, said talks could begin soon on integrating this small country into NATO.

It was Georgia's push to join the alliance that apparently prompted Moscow to escalate pressure on Saakashvili's pro-U.S. government.

"Georgia, if it wants to become a member of NATO, will become one," Merkel told reporters at a joint appearance with Saakashvili outside the glass-domed hilltop presidential palace in Tbilisi, 25 miles from Russian troop positions.

Russian forces invaded Georgia after clashes between the two countries' military forces, as well as between Georgian forces and South Ossetian militants. Moscow says an unprovoked Georgian attack in South Ossetia killed more than 2,000 civilians around the breakaway republic's capital, though the figure has not been confirmed.

Georgians say they were responding to Russian provocations that grew impossible to ignore.

The crisis has heightened tensions between Russia and the West.

Merkel, who grew up under communist rule in Soviet-controlled East Germany, called on Russian forces to quickly leave Georgian territory.

"I expect a very fast withdrawal," she said. "This is an urgent matter."

She added, "This must happen not in several weeks, but in the coming days."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also repeated calls for Russia to leave or face consequences.

"Clearly the actions that Russia has taken in Georgia . . . [have] sent a powerful signal to the West," Gates said in an interview on ABC television.

"While they're wealthy with oil, they need a lot from the West, and I think that there are some real opportunities here if they don't observe the cease-fire and begin to reverse some of these actions," he said.

Flying into Tbilisi after meeting officials at the Kremlin in Moscow, Merkel said Medvedev had assured her that Russian troops would begin vacating Georgia today. Sarkozy's office released a statement also saying the French had received such Russian assurances, the Associated Press reported.

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