- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2008

IGOETI, Georgia | Russian forces built ramparts around tanks and posted sentries on a hill in central Georgia on Sunday, digging in despite Western pressure for Moscow to withdraw its forces under a cease-fire deal signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The United States and France said it appeared that Russia was defying the truce already. Russian troops still controlled two Georgian cities and the key east-west highway between them Saturday, an area well outside the breakaway provinces where earlier fighting was focused.

“From my point of view - and I am in contact with the French - the Russians are perhaps already not honoring their word,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

President Bush warned Russia Saturday that it cannot lay claim to the two separatist regions in U.S.-backed Georgia even though their sympathies lie with Moscow.

“There is no room for debate on this matter,” the president, with Miss Rice, told reporters at his Texas ranch.

But Georgia’s Foreign Ministry accused Russian army units and separatist fighters in one of the regions, Abkhazia, of taking over 13 villages and the Inguri hydropower plant Saturday, shifting the border of the Black Sea province toward the Inguri River.

Abkhaz officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the late-night claim, and there was no information on whether the seizure involved violence.

The villages and plant are in a United Nations-established buffer zone on Abkhazia’s edge, and it appeared that the separatists were bolstering their control over the zone after Russian-backed fighters forced Georgians out of their last stronghold in Abkhazia earlier this week.

The tense peace pact in Georgia, a U.S. ally that has emerged as a proxy for conflict between an emboldened Russia and the West, calls for both Russian and Georgian forces to pull back to positions they held before fighting erupted Aug. 7 in the other breakaway province, South Ossetia in central Georgia.

But freshly dug positions of Russian armor in the town of Igoeti, about 30 miles west of the capital Tbilisi, showed that Russia was observing the truce at the pace and scope of its choosing.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, acknowledged that Mr. Medvedev had signed the cease-fire deal and ordered its implementation, but he said Russian troops would not withdraw until Moscow is satisfied that security measures its forces are allowed to take under the agreement are effective.

He also said Russia would strengthen its peacekeeping contingent in South Ossetia, the separatist Georgian region at the center of more than a week of warfare that sharply soured relations between Moscow and the West.

“As these additional security measures are taken, the units of the Russian armed forces that were sent into the zone of the South Ossetian conflict … will be withdrawn,” he said.

Asked how much time it would take, he responded: “As much as is needed.”

Miss Rice bristled at this, saying that the text of the cease-fire agreement, negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the current leader of the European Union, outlined a very limited mandate only for Russian peacekeepers who were in Georgia at the time hostilities escalated. She said the agreement specifies that these initial peacekeepers can have limited patrols in a prescribed area within the conflict zone and would not be allowed to go into Georgian urban areas or tie up a cross-country highway.

According to Miss Rice, Mr. Medvedev told Mr. Sarkozy that the minute the Georgian president signed the cease-fire agreement, Russian forces would begin to withdraw.

Russian troops effectively control the main artery running through the western half of Georgia, because they surround the strategic central city of Gori and the city and air base of Senaki in the west. Both cities sit on the main east-west highway that slices through two Georgian mountain ranges.

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