IGOETI, Georgia (AP) Russian forces pulled back Saturday from positions in a town not far from Georgia’s capital after Russia’s president signed a cease-fire deal, but his foreign minister said the troop withdrawal would be contingent on further security measures.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also said Russia would strengthen its peacekeeping contingent in South Ossetia, the breakaway Georgian region at the center of more than a week of warfare that has sharply soured relations between Moscow and the West.
The agreement, signed a day earlier by Georgian President Mikhail Saakshvili after lengthy talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calls for both Russian and Georgian forces to pull back to positions they held before fighting erupted Aug. 8.
Georgia launched a massive barrage to try to take control of the Russian-backed separatist region of South Ossetia. The Russian army quickly overwhelmed the forces of its small U.S.-backed neighbor and Moscow’s troops drove deep into Georgia.
The Russian seizure of territory, including Gori and its positions in Igoeti, raised fears that Russia was aiming for a permanent occupation of the country that once was part of its empire.
President Bush told reporters at his ranch Saturday that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s signing of the cease-fire plan was “an important development.”
“Russia now needs to honor that agreement” and withdraw its forces, he said.
Bush also disputed Russia’s claim that South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia, may not be part of Georgia’s future. There is “no room for debate on this,” the president said.
The conflict and Russian remarks have raised fears in the West that Russia could absorb the two regions, which broke from Georgia government control in early 1990s wars.
The crisis has chilled relations between the United States and Russia. The fighting comes as the U.S. is sealing the deal on a missile shield in Europe an issue already unraveling ties between the two former Cold War foes.
Poland and the U.S. signed a deal Thursday for Poland to accept a missile interceptor base as part of a system the U.S. says is aimed at blocking attacks by adversaries such as Iran. Moscow feels it is aimed at Russia’s missile force.
Related Story: “Russian says shield makes Poland target”
Keeping up the diplomatic pressure, Rice planned to go to Brussels next week for meetings with the foreign ministers of NATO allies and European Union officials.
The cease-fire calls for Russian troops to pull back to positions they held in South Ossetia before the fighting while allowing limited Russian patrols in Georgia proper.
Medvedev signed the order in the resort city of Sochi, where the president has a summer residence, his spokesman Alexei Pavlov said Saturday without providing further details. Saakashvili signed the truce in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
But Russia’s foreign minister later suggested there would be no immediate withdrawal.
He said there would be “additional security measures (taken) by the Russian peacekeeping contingent, which will be strengthened. As these measures of addition security are taken, the units of the Russian armed forces that were sent into the zone of the South Ossetian conflict … will be withdrawn.”
Asked how much time it would take, he responded: “As much as is needed.”
Lavrov was not specific about the security measures, but suggested they would be limited mostly to South Ossetia, not Georgia proper, and accused Georgia of undermining security.
“We are constantly encountering problems from the Georgian side, and everything will depend on how effectively and quickly these problems are resolved,” he said.
While Russian forces abandoned the center of Igoeti, they maintained positions on a hillside with a view of the area. Such deployments could be intended as defensive positions for the Russians to guard their comrades as they withdraw.
In Gori, a crossroads city where Georgia says the presence of Russian forces has cut the country in half, two columns of military vehicles could be seen and there was no immediate sign of a pullout. Gori is on the same road as Igoeti, further from Tbilisi and closer to South Ossetia.
Even if Russian forces do withdraw from Georgia proper, Moscow appears likely to maintain strong control over South Ossetia, whose leaders claim independence from Georgia and have sought to join Russia by merging with a neighboring Russian region also populated largely by ethnic Ossetians.
Lavrov said there is “no ceiling” on the number of peacekeepers Russia can have in South Ossetia.
He said Russia is in talks on what an intentional presence in South Ossetia would look like and suggested the number of international observers, including military observers, could be increased from the size of the small mission the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe’s had there before the hostilities erupted.
“There questions are not decided by Condoleezza Rice or somebody else. They are decided first of all by the side that has suffered in the conflict,” Lavrov said. “What peacekeepers from what countries are needed for the people of South Ossetia to feel comfortable is a primarily up to the people of South Ossetia.”
Lavrov also said the cease-fire deal Saakashvili differed from the one signed by Medvedev, lacking the introductory portion. While the difference appeared largely to be a technicality, it was one that either side might potentially cite if it wanted to abandon the deal.
Associated Press writers Mansur Mirovalev in Gori and Tskhinvali, Jim Heintz in Moscow, and Deb Riechmann in Crawford, Texas contributed to this report.