Monday, August 18, 2008

GORI, Georgia (AP) – Russia said its military began to withdraw from the conflict zone in Georgia on Monday, but left unclear exactly where troops and tanks will operate under the cease-fire that ended days of fighting in the former Soviet republic.

Russian troops and tanks have controlled a wide swath of Georgia for days after a short but intense war that reignited Cold War tensions.

In Moscow, Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn told a briefing that “today, according to the peace plan, the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers and reinforcements has begun.” He added that forces were leaving Gori, which sits on Georgia’s main east-west highway.

Earlier in the day, Russian forces around Gori appeared to be solidifying their positions, and it was not immediately possible to confirm the withdrawal with AP journalists there.

A U.S. official said Monday that the Russian military had moved missile launchers into the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The RIA-Novosti news agency reported that some Russian military vehicles were heading Monday out of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali toward Russia. The leader of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, also asked Russia on Monday to establish a permanent base there, the news agency said.

According to the European Union-brokered peace plan signed by both Medvedev and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, both sides are to pull forces back to the positions they held before fighting broke out Aug. 7 in the Russian-backed Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia.

Nogovitsyn said the Russian troops are pulling back to South Ossetia and a security zone defined by a 1999 agreement of the “joint control commission” that had been nominally in charge of South Ossetia’s status since it split from Georgia in the early 1990s.

Georgian and Russian officials could not immediately clarify the dimensions of the security zone. Nogovitsyn said only that “troops should not be in the territory of Georgia,” but it was unclear if that excluded patrols.

“I think the Russians will pull out, but will damage Georgia strongly,” Tbilisi resident Givi Sikharulidze told an AP television crew. “Georgia will survive, but Russia has lost its credibility in the eyes of the world.”

Top American officials said Washington would rethink its relationship with Moscow after its military drive deep into its much smaller neighbor and called for a swift Russian withdrawal.

“I think there needs to be a strong, unified response to Russia to send the message that this kind of behavior, characteristic of the Soviet period, has no place in the 21st century,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday.

But neither Gates nor Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be specific about what punitive actions the United States or the international community might take.

Rice, who was flying to Europe for talks Tuesday with NATO allies about what message the West should send to Russia, said Russia can’t use “disproportionate force” against its neighbor and still be welcome in international institutions.

“It’s not going to happen that way,” she said. “Russia will pay a price.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned Medvedev of “serious consequences” in Moscow’s relations with the European Union if Russia does not comply with the cease-fire accord.

A U.S. official told The Associated Press that the Russian military moved SS-21 missile launchers into South Ossetia on Friday. From there, the missiles would be able to reach Tbilisi.

Nogovitsyn, the Russian military official, disputed the claim, saying Russia “sees no necessity” to place SS-21s in the region.

The war broke out after Georgia launched a barrage to try to retake control of South Ossetia, a Russian-backed separatist region that split off in the early 1990s. Russia had peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia and sent in thousands of reinforcements immediately, driving out Georgian forces. Georgian troops also were driven out of the small portion they had held in another separatist region, the Black Sea province of Abkhazia.

Russian troops also took positions deep into Georgia, including Gori, about 50 miles west of the capital, and in the Black Sea port of Poti. They also began a campaign to disable the Georgian military, destroying or carting away large caches of military equipment. An AP photographer saw Russian troops guarding rows of captured Georgian military vehicles Sunday in Tskhinvali.

An AP photographer also saw Russian troops Sunday in the South Ossetian village of Kikhvi. Houses in the mostly-ethnic Georgian village were burning days after most fighting had ended.

Bolstered by Western support, Georgia’s leader vowed never to abandon its claim to territory now firmly in the hands of Russia and its separatist allies, even though he has few means of asserting control. His pledge, echoed by Western insistence that Georgia must not be broken apart, portends further tensions over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In Gori, there were scenes of desperation Sunday as Georgians crowded around aid vehicles, grasping for loaves of bread. Virtually all shops were closed and the streets were almost empty, save for those seeking aid.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a humanitarian catastrophe, but there’s an urgent need for primary products,” Georgian national security council head Alexander Lomaia told journalists Monday on the outskirts of Gori.

Nearby, Russian troops inspected a Georgian humanitarian aid vehicle Monday before allowing it to enter Gori.

Georgia’s government minister for refugees, Koba Subeliani, said there were 140,000 displaced people in Tbilisi and the surrounding area.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Jon Miller arrived in Georgia to assess the need for further humanitarian aid. So far, at least six U.S. military flights carrying aid have arrived in Tbilisi, ferrying everything from cots, sleeping bags and medicine to emergency shelters and syringes.

Associated Press writers David Nowak, Steve Gutterman and Jill Lawless in Moscow; Michael Fischer and Matti Friedman in Tbilisi, Georgia; Deb Riechmann in Crawford, Texas; and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.

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