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Russia pulls out, but disputes remain

Georgia says Moscow has not relinquished control of one town. Fates of rebel regions remain unresolved.

October 09, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Russian troops dismantled checkpoints and decamped from Georgia proper on Wednesday, abandoning a two-month occupation of broad swaths of the smaller former Soviet republic and pushing the festering conflict to a new status quo.

The withdrawal brings a measure of relief but sheds little light on the bitter dispute over the future of Georgia's two breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia plans to leave thousands of troops stationed in the rebel regions, which Moscow has recognized as independent states and whose residents hold Russian passports. Georgia, meanwhile, still aspires to bring the lands back under the central government's control.

Georgia and the West argue that Russia's plans to leave its enlarged forces in the rebel regions, where it has long maintained peacekeeping forces, violate a French-brokered cease-fire deal. With tensions high, several unsolved bombings have erupted in the breakaway regions.

On Wednesday, Russia and Georgia were already bickering over whether the troops had fully withdrawn.

The move was incomplete because Russian soldiers hadn't relinquished their grip on the disputed town of Akhalgori, said Alexander Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's national security council. Moscow considers Akhalgori part of South Ossetia.

"All we expect them to do is to quietly withdraw from regions [where] they have never been before, and regions that have never been under any control but the Georgian government's," Lomaia said in a telephone interview.

"Unless they withdraw . . . we are not able to concede that they have met the Oct. 10 deadline" set by the cease-fire accord.

But Russian officials made it plain that, in their view, the withdrawal was finished. A European Union monitor also told the Associated Press that Russia appeared to have withdrawn from most of Georgia proper.

Under the French-brokered deal, Russian forces had until Friday to abandon posts on land seized during the summer war. The soldiers had been controlling a rural run of villages and farmlands in the wake of August's five-day conflict, which cranked up Cold War-like tensions by pitting U.S.-backed Georgia against Moscow.

On Aug. 7, Georgia launched an operation to bring South Ossetia to heel. Russia intervened with a punishing land and air assault. At the height of the offensive, Russian troops sent tanks well into Georgia to within 25 miles of Tbilisi, the capital. The Russian soldiers later pulled back, but kept a tight grip on the "security zone" abutting South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have been largely autonomous since the early 1990s.

Russia went on to unilaterally recognize the independence of the breakaway republics. So far, only Nicaragua has joined Moscow.

The United States and Europe have harshly criticized Russia for the use of heavy force during the conflict and for failing to respect Georgian borders.

At an EU-sponsored conference in Geneva next week, Georgia is expected to demand that Russia leave the breakaway republics. Moscow is unlikely to comply.

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megan.stack@latimes.com

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