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Georgia says troops quit South Ossetia PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 11 August 2008

ERGNETI, Georgia, Sun Aug 10,(bdnews24.com/Reuters) - Georgia withdrew its forces from breakaway South Ossetia region on Sunday after three days of fighting but Russia has sent more troops into the enclave, the Georgian government said.

The Russian army said Georgian forces were still in South Osettia, Russian media reported.

And in a sign that the conflict might spread, the head of Abkhazia, another separatist region of Georgia, said he had sent 1,000 troops to a disputed area and mobilized reservists.

The pull-out announcement followed a Georgian push to take control of the pro-Moscow enclave from separatists which prompted Russia to pour troops into South Ossetia and launch air strikes inside Georgia.

Russian officials said the death toll in fighting that began on Thursday stood at 2,000. Georgia said on Friday that it had lost up to 300 people killed, mainly civilians.

On Sunday, a Georgian convoy of troops and artillery withdrew from South Ossetia through the village of Ergneti, just inside Georgian-controlled territory south of the separatist capital Tskhinvali.

"They have been withdrawn, completely," Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told Reuters.

But Interfax quoted Vladimir Ivanov, an aide to the commander of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, as saying Georgian forces, artillery and amour remained.

"Georgia has not withdrawn forces from South Ossetia," he said.

Utiashvili said in the past few hours Russia had brought 6,000 troops into Georgia and a further 4,000 troops by sea.

The conflict in the heart of the Caucasus has raised alarm in the West, which is vying for influence with Russia over crucial oil and gas supply routes in the region.

Russia sent in troops after the Georgian assault, upping the stakes in a long-running stand-off with the ex-Soviet republic over its pro-Western policies and its drive for NATO membership.

Russia bombed a military airfield outside the Georgian capital early on Sunday and Tbilisi said the Russians were also massing troops in Abkhazia on the Black Sea, another rebel region that broke with Tbilisi in the early 1990s after a war.

Russian warships had arrived at Georgia's Black Sea coast, RIA news agency quoted a Russian navy source as saying.

Interfax agency said the naval force would stop weapons landing by sea. But RIA-Novosti news agency quoted a defense source as saying Russia had no plans to mount a blockade.

"A naval blockade means war with Georgia," the source told RIA. "We are not at war with Georgia."

A Georgian ceasefire offer on Saturday went unheeded by Moscow, which demanded a complete pullback to positions before fighting began. Shortly before the Georgian ceasefire announcement, shelling could still be heard.

An EU-U.S. delegation headed for Georgia to try to broker an end to the conflict.

SECOND FRONT

Georgia said that overnight, Russia had landed 4,000 troops by sea in Abkhazia.

Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh said he had sent 1,000 troops to the disputed Kodori gorge and mobilized reservists.

"We are ready to act independently," he told reporters. "We are ready to enforce order and go further if there is resistance from the Georgian side."

In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was profoundly concerned over mounting tensions in Abkhazia.

Georgian spokesman Utiashvili said Russian planes had bombed Georgia's military airfield, 12 km (8 miles) from Tbilisi, at a plant producing Sukhoi Su-25 ground fighters. No one was hurt, but the impact could be heard in downtown Tbilisi.

Russia was unbowed by Western criticism of its offensive.

"Russia's actions in South Ossetia are totally legitimate," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said, visiting an adjacent region of Russia to which thousands of refugees have fled.

Putin said Georgia's bid to join the Western alliance NATO -- anathema to Moscow -- was part of the problem.

Russia is the main backer of South Ossetian separatists and the majority of the population, ethnically distinct from Georgians, have been given Russian passports since the enclave broke with Tbilisi in the early 1990s.

Putin said more than 30,000 refugees from South Ossetia had fled over the border in the past 36 hours. Russian officials said two of Moscow's warplanes had been shot down, 13 soldiers killed and 70 wounded.

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