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Russia says troops to leave Georgia by weekend

by Michael Mainville*

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised to pull almost all troops from Georgia by the weekend, but there was no immediate sign of movement yesterday.
As international pressure mounted on Russia to quit Georgia's separatist province of South Ossetia, a second breakaway region, Abkhazia, announced it was appealing to Moscow to recognise its independence.
In a telephone conversation with French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, Medvedev vowed that all but 500 Russian troops needed for "additional security measures" would be pulled out of the former Soviet republic by tomorrow.
However, there was no evidence early yesterday of a shift in the Russian deployment, which began August 8 to repel a Georgian offensive against separatists in South Ossetia.
Over five days Russia's army expelled Georgian forces from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and also seized control of several towns and strategic roads deep inside the country.
A correspondent approaching the mountain pass across the Georgian-Russian border saw no military traffic heading out of Georgia.
Troops remained dug in near Gori, a Georgian town outside South Ossetia.
Georgian interior ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said "there are no major movements or sign of a withdrawal."
Delays in Russia's promised withdrawal — initially announced as starting Monday — stoked increasingly heated rows between Moscow and Western capitals.
Visiting Tbilisi, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Tuesday accused Russia of "not living up to its word" on previous commitments to withdraw its troops from Georgia.
At the United Nations in New York, Russia rejected a French-drafted UN Security Council resolution demanding full compliance with the ceasefire including a full Russian troop withdrawal.
Tensions also boiled over between Russia and NATO which on Tuesday met in emergency session to condemn the continued Russian troop presence.
Moscow pulled its navy out of joint exercises with the alliance, while NATO declared that "business as usual" with the Russians was no longer possible.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out at what he called attempts to rescue the "criminal regime" of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a close Western ally pushing hard to win NATO membership.
He called NATO's position on the crisis "unobjective and biased" and said moves to draw Georgia into the alliance were aimed at subverting Russia.
A French-brokered deal specifies that combat troops must pull out but an unspecified number of Russian soldiers can remain as "peacekeepers." There is little clarity on their mandate or their scope of operations.
The other major question remains whether Georgia will regain control over its rebel territories, which first broke away during fighting in the early 1990s.
The Ossetians say they want to become part of Russia, while the Abkhaz are seeking independence. Both rebel governments have had years of support and financing from Moscow.
Tens of thousands of ethnic-Georgians, who used to form the majority population in Abkhazia, have been expelled from their homes over the last 15 years and remain displaced inside Georgia.
The draft UN text, debated during an emergency council meeting, "demands full and immediate compliance with the ceasefire to which the parties have subscribed."
Circulated by France on behalf of European members and with US support, the draft also "demands the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces to the lines held prior to the outbreak of hostilities (on August 7) and the return of Georgian forces to their usual bases."
It would also reaffirm "the commitment of all member states to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders."
But Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin, whose country is a veto-wielding Security Council member, made it clear that his delegation would not accept the text because it included only two of the six points listed in the peace deal brokered by Sarkozy.