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Georgia withdraws troops from South Ossetia PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Reuters, Ergneti, Georgia - Georgia has withdrawn its forces from breakaway South Ossetia, where they had been fighting Russian troops for control, the Georgian interior ministry said on Sunday.

The pullout followed three days of fighting in 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 its small neighbor.

A Georgian military convoy carrying troops and towing heavy artillery was seen withdrawing from South Ossetia.

"They have been withdrawn, completely," Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told Reuters on Sunday.

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.

A Georgian ceasefire offer on Saturday went unheeded by Moscow, which demanded a complete pullback to positions before fighting began.

An EU-U.S. delegation headed for Georgia to try to broker an end to the conflict in the heart of the volatile Caucasus, where Russia and the West are vying for influence over crucial oil and gas supply routes.

Russia poured in troops, dramatically 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.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili visited the village of Ergneti on the border with South Ossetia on Sunday after Tbilisi said it had withdrawn its forces from the breakaway territory.

ALARM

The confrontation has sparked alarm in the West and led to angry exchanges at the U.N. reminiscent of the Cold War.

Georgia said that overnight, Russia had landed 4,000 troops by sea to the coast of Black Sea Abkhazia, the larger of Georgia's two breakaway regions.

In New York, a top U.N. peacekeeping official said there were indications the Abkhaz were preparing to launch a military offensive against Georgian special forces in the upper Kodori gorge in northern Abkhazia.

"At this point we are particularly concerned that the conflict appears to be spreading beyond South Ossetia into Abkhazia," U.N. assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping Edmond Mulet told reporters.

Utiashvili said in the past few hours Russia had brought 6,000 troops into Georgia and a further 4,000 troops by sea. "All of them are waiting for dawn to start active actions," he told Reuters.

He 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.

In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "profoundly concerned over mounting tensions in the Abkhaz zone." Russia was unbowed by Western criticism of its military 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.

"Georgia's aspiration to join NATO ... is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures," he said, adding that Georgian action bore "elements of some kind of genocide against the Ossetians."

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.

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.

"The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia. They mark a dangerous escalation in the crisis," U.S. President George W. Bush said at the Olympics in Beijing.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Bush by phone the only solution was for Georgian troops to quit the conflict zone.

Georgia's parliament approved a state of war across the country for the next 15 days, while Russia accused the West of contributing to the violence by supplying Georgia with arms.

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