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Russian soldiers will stay in Georgia

Plan for checkpoints appears to violate cease-fire terms.

August 21, 2008|Sergei L. Loiko and Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — Russia plans to establish a long-term presence in Georgia and one of its breakaway republics by adding 18 checkpoints, including at least eight within undisputed Georgian territory outside the pro-Russian enclave of South Ossetia, a ranking Russian military official told reporters Wednesday.

The checkpoints will be staffed by hundreds of Russian troops, the official said, and those within Georgia proper will have supplies ferried to them from breakaway South Ossetia.

If implemented, the plan would in effect put under Russian control the border between Georgia and the South Ossetia region, which is seeking independence, as well as a small chunk of Georgia proper.

"This is the essence of it," Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the army general staff, told reporters at a briefing. He showed maps detailing the proposed Russian positions, one just outside the Georgian city of Gori, which lies along a crucial juncture of the country's main east-west highway.

"The president ordered us to stop where we were," he said. "We are not pulling out and pulling back troops behind this administrative border into the territory of South Ossetia."

The plans appear to violate the terms of a French-endorsed cease-fire deal signed late last week by the presidents of Georgia and Russia. It called for both country's troops and allied armed groups to move back to their positions held before hostilities between the two countries' troops led to a Russian military incursion early this month into the staunchly pro-U.S. Caucasus Mountains nation.

Russian officials say the deal allows them to keep troops along the South Ossetia-Georgia border as well as within Georgia proper as part of a peacekeeping mission begun in the 1990s. The Russians say their peacekeeping mandate gives them access to a "security zone" along the border.

At the United Nations, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin on Wednesday circulated a draft resolution calling for the Security Council's endorsement of the cease-fire plan that had been promoted last week by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

U.S. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff made it clear that Washington opposed the Russian initiative. He said it is "designed to rubber-stamp a Russian interpretation" of the cease-fire that the West rejects.

Western envoys at the U.N. supported a French draft resolution Monday calling for immediate Russian withdrawal from Georgia. But Russia, which wields a Security Council veto, blocked it. The 15-member council did not debate the rival Russian draft.

Relations between the West and Moscow have plummeted to their lowest depths since the end of the Cold War, prompting fear that an economically invigorated Russia would strive to reestablish authority over what it views as its centuries-old sphere of influence, including Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Top diplomats of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members said they would reconsider their relations with Moscow in light of its incursion into Georgia.

In this month's fighting, at least 64 Russian soldiers were killed and 323 injured, Nogovitsyn said. Russians were outraged by what they called an unprovoked surprise attack by Georgians on Russian peacekeepers based in South Ossetia, as well as civilians in the breakaway region. Georgians have accused Moscow of provoking the fight as a pretext for sending troops into Georgian territory.

Officials in Georgia, the U.S. and European nations have demanded that Russia pull its troops back to positions held before the fighting broke out Aug. 7.

President Bush reiterated that message Wednesday during a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Orlando, Fla., and defended Georgia's claim to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another pro-Moscow breakaway region.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the presence of Russia's forces is "now having an effect" on Georgia's neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, by making imports and exports difficult. She said Armenia is beginning to see shortages.

Rice said that as of midafternoon, U.S. officials had seen no signs of a Russian retreat from Georgia. Another U.S. official said some movement suggested that some military units might be pulling back.

In Moscow, Nogovitsyn said "time will tell" when Russians would pull troops out of areas they control in Georgia proper, including the key city of Gori. He called the proposed new checkpoints "observation posts."

Georgian officials voiced outrage over the continued Russian presence. The Georgian Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday that Russians had set up a new position along the highway between the Black Sea port city of Poti and Abkhazia.

"Over the last seven days they've promised three times to leave, but they've yet to fulfill their promises," said Alexander Lomaia, Georgia's national security advisor, during an interview in downtown Gori.

"We're here and we haven't seen any sign of them pulling out," he said. "There is the same number of checkpoints and the same severe rules for entering and exiting."

The U.S. military flew in five loads of relief supplies, news agencies reported. It is also attempting to dispatch several military vessels from the Mediterranean to Georgia's Black Sea coast with additional aid.

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daragahi@latimes.com

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Loiko reported from Moscow and Daragahi from Gori. Times staff writers Paul Richter in Warsaw and Richard Boudreaux at the United Nations also contributed to this report.

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