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Georgia and U.S. see no withdrawal

Russia says the pullout has begun. But some reports have soldiers reentering western military positions.

August 19, 2008|Sergei L. Loiko and Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — The Russian military said Monday that it had begun pulling back troops that had swarmed into the nation of Georgia last week. But U.S. and Georgian officials and news reports indicated that, at least initially, little had changed on the ground.

Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of Russia's general staff, told reporters at a regular briefing here that Russian forces had started the process of leaving Georgia proper as part of a cease-fire signed in recent days by the two nations' presidents.

"Today in accordance with the decision of the president of the Russian Federation, the disengagement of troops from the areas temporarily held by the units of the [Russian] armed forces has begun," Nogovitsyn said in the televised briefing.

In Washington, a Pentagon official said the U.S. had not seen signs of significant movement by Russian troops.

"There is no indication to us that they have begun to pull back," said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the U.S. assessment of Russian military moves. "We see no evidence of a rush to withdrawal."

Georgia's Foreign Ministry charged that Russians had in fact reentered some military positions in western Georgia and had installed land mines on bridges near key cities in central and western parts of the country. Georgian television showed footage of Russian armored vehicles crushing police vehicles that Georgian officials reportedly refused to move at a checkpoint at Igoeti, a town about 25 miles west of Tbilisi, the capital.

Moscow sent troops across the border Aug. 7 after Georgian forces moved against South Ossetia, a pro-Russian area of Georgia that broke from the central government in the early 1990s and has been largely autonomous since. Russian leaders charged that Georgian troops had killed Ossetian civilians and Russian peacekeepers based in the breakaway region.

The Russians have interpreted the cease-fire deal signed Saturday by President Dmitry Medvedev to mean that they must only remove troops from most undisputed parts of Georgia, but can keep them in South Ossetia and a murky security zone outside the breakaway republic, as well as in Abkhazia, another Georgian region seeking independence. The troops will remain, the Russians said, to stamp out alleged insurgents.

"Increased subversive and terrorist activities against Russian troops and South Ossetian civilians were recorded," Nogovitsyn noted at the briefing. "They have never been stopped and are on the increase now."

Nogovitsyn noted that "the situation in the Russian peacekeepers' responsibility zones is under their full control, providing favorable conditions for the disengagement of the troops to the designated areas." But he immediately hedged his statement. "We are fully aware that the Georgian side is capable of carrying out provocations toward our troops and civilians at any moment."

Western officials have said the accord calls for the withdrawal of all additional Russian troops sent into the enclaves and Georgia proper after Aug. 7, leaving in place only the peacekeepers already stationed in the two breakaway areas.

The current fighting broke out amid rising East-West tensions over Georgia's drive to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and more closely ally itself with the United States and Europe.

Russia says its troops entered Georgia to quell an attack on South Ossetians, many of whom hold Russian passports. But Georgians say that they were provoked into sending troops into the enclave and that Russia had long planned to attack their country because of its attempt to move out of Moscow's orbit.

Medvedev spoke harshly Monday about the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, calling Georgian officials "freaks" prepared to "murder" civilians. He was speaking at an awards ceremony for Russian soldiers who had served in the recent conflict.

"If somebody thinks that he can with impunity murder our citizens, murder our soldiers and officers who are peacekeepers, we will never allow this," Medvedev earlier told a group of World War II veterans in the southern Russian city of Kursk in a speech broadcast on television.

"All those who try to do something like that will get a crushing response," he said. "We have all possibilities for this, economic, political and military."

South Ossetians meanwhile moved to consolidate power in their self-declared republic, which had a population that was one-third ethnic Georgian and two-thirds Ossetian before the latest clashes.

Aid workers fear both Georgians and Ossetians were forcibly displaced during the recent fighting. On Sunday, Eduard Kokoity, self-proclaimed president of South Ossetia, dismissed his government and declared a monthlong state of emergency and a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

"Now it is essentially important to restore order and discipline in the republic," said Irina Gagloyeva, Kokoity's spokeswoman, in a phone interview with The Times.

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