Russia to keep a force deep inside Georgia
Sunday, 24 August 2008

REUTERS, TBILISI- Russia said it would complete a pullback of troops in Georgia by the end of Friday but it stopped short of the extensive withdrawal demanded by the West, saying it would keep a force deep inside Georgia's heartland.

Western states have grown increasingly impatient that Russian troops remain inside Georgia nearly a week after a ceasefire ended a war that broke out when Tbilisi tried to retake its breakaway South Ossetia region.
 
In some of its toughest comments to date, the White House accused Russia of breaking a promise to leave Georgia.
 
"The withdrawal is not happening very quickly, if it in fact has begun," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "The withdrawal needs to take place, and needs to take place now."
 
Washington was to underline its support for aspiring NATO member Georgia on Friday by sending the US navy destroyer USS McFall into the Black Sea, the backyard of the Russian navy, to deliver relief supplies to Georgia.
 
NATO this week suspended contacts with Russia in protest at the conflict, and Russian hit back by freezing some military cooperation with the alliance.
 
In Washington, the World Bank said it was sending a mission to Georgia on Friday to assess the economic damage caused by the fighting. The Bank would also set up a fund to help pay for Georgia's reconstruction.
 
Russian forces were rushed into Georgia on August 8 to repel an attack by Georgian forces on South Ossetia, a province that broke from Tbilisi in the early 1990s and is backed by Moscow.
 
Russian troops and tanks quickly crushed the Georgian military and pushed on deeper into the ex-Soviet state, halting about 45 km (30 miles) from the capital, Tbilisi.
 
BATTLE TANKS
 
A Reuters reporter on Thursday saw a column of T-72 battle tanks moving out of Georgia and into Russia across a mountain pass, but elsewhere most Russian units showed little sign they were preparing to withdraw.
 
Moscow said it was honoring its commitment to pull back under a ceasefire deal brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
 
Russian defense officials said what they called reinforcement troops would be pulled back to within South Ossetia by the end of Friday, and from there withdrawn to Russian soil within 10 days.
 
But they made a distinction between those troops and what they described as a peacekeeping force. This force would stay on indefinitely in South Ossetia, and a "security zone" around it, the officials said.
 
That zone would leave Russian troops still inside the Georgian heartland and close to the main east-west highway on which its economy depends.
 
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said he would not stand for that.
 
"There will be no buffer zones. We will never live with any buffer zones. We'll never allow anything like this," he told Reuters in Tbilisi.
 
Russia says it needs to maintain a force in Georgia to prevent further bloodshed and protect South Ossetians -- most of whom hold Russian passports -- from Georgian attacks. Tbilisi says Moscow is trying to annexe its territory.
 
NATO states have pressed Russia to pull its troops swiftly out of Georgia and the alliance this week froze contacts with Russia over the conflict.
 
Russia responded by saying it was suspending military cooperation with Latvia, Estonia and Norway.
 
It was unclear if there would be any impact on a crucial aspect of NATO-Russian cooperation: the deal under which Moscow allows aircraft supplying the NATO-led force in Afghanistan to fly through Russian airspace.
 
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was "not going to shut the doors" on cooperation with NATO, but he reminded the alliance that Russia's support was crucial to its operations in Afghanistan.

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