Eyes on Russia after Georgia signs ceasefire


  • World
  • Saturday, 16 Aug 2008

MYT 3:47:00 PM

GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - The United States demanded that Russia pull its troops out of Georgia immediately, but there was no immediate response from Moscow.

Russian servicemen sit on a tank in Gori near South Ossetia, August 15, 2008. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Friday signed a French-inspired ceasefire pact intended to pave the way for the withdrawal of Russian tanks and soldiers and Washington said Moscow should respond without delay.

A Reuters correspondent in the central Georgian city of Gori, the main area occupied by Russian troops, said early on Saturday that there was no sign of large-scale redeployment.

"We will be here until Saakashvili resigns," a Russian soldier at their checkpoint outside Gori said.

A simmering conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted into war more than a week ago, when Tbilisi launched an assault to retake the rebel province of South Ossetia, provoking a huge counter-offensive from Moscow.

France, which brokered the peace deal, said Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev had told French President Nicolas Sarkozy by telephone that Moscow would sign the pact.

"(Medvedev) confirmed...that he would also sign the accord and that Russia would scrupulously respect the engagements in the accord, notably those concerning the withdrawal of Russian forces," Sarkozy's office said.

RUSSIANS "DRAG THEIR FEET"

Georgia accused Russia of unnecessary delay, saying U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited Saakashvili to secure his agreement, was sending the pact to Moscow.

"She said she would fax the document to the Russians," Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said on Saturday. "But I don't expect anything from the Russians, this is the Russian tactic to drag their feet."

Medvedev was due to meet his National Security Council in the Black Sea resort of Sochi later on Saturday, a meeting which could provide an opportunity for Moscow to announce a response.

Russian officials were unable to say whether a fax of the document bearing Saakashvili's signature had been received. A Kremlin source said: "I don't think any major decisions will be made on this on the basis of a fax."

Rice, visiting Tbilisi on Friday to show support for close ally Saakashvili, sharply criticised Moscow for its actions.

In a reference to August 1968, when a Soviet-led tank invasion crushed Czechoslovakia's fledgling reforms, Rice said: "Russian forces need to leave Georgia at once. This is no longer 1968."

The Kremlin has deployed warships, planes, tanks and troops against Georgia in the biggest Russian military operation outside its borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Moscow says the United States has failed to appreciate that Saakashvili started the hostilities and that it had an obligation to defend Russian passport-holders in South Ossetia against Georgian attack.

CONVOY ON THE MOVE

On Friday, about 17 Russian armoured personnel carriers and about 200 soldiers drove to a village 45 km from Tbilisi, the nearest they have come to the Georgian capital since fighting began last week.

The vehicles were unimpeded by Georgian police and army and the purpose of their movement was not clear.

Saakashvili, who has denounced the Russians as "21st century barbarians", said on Friday Moscow's forces had advanced on two other towns -- Khashari and Borjomi -- in central Georgia.

Russia's military denied any presence in Borjomi.

"This is just another informational provocation on Georgia's part. Russian units have not entered Borjomi," a Russian Defence Ministry source told Interfax news agency on Saturday.

There have been independent reports of Russian troops moving in and out of the Black Sea port of Poti and the western Georgian town of Zugdidi, seizing and destroying Georgian military equipment.

German leader Angela Merkel joined the calls for Russia to pull out its troops from Georgia proper.

After meeting Medvedev in Sochi on Friday, she criticised Moscow's actions as disproportionate and said Russia must pull its troops back to the two separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The pressure from Berlin was significant: Germany is Russia's biggest trading partner, considered by Moscow to be a more reliable and sympathetic European power than pro-American Britain or Poland.

Poland signed an agreement with the United States on Thursday to station part of a new anti-missile system on its territory. A Russian general said the deal laid Poland open to a possible nuclear strike by Moscow in the event of war.

(Additional reporting by Oleg Shchedrov in Sochi and Ron Popeski in Moscow)

For special cover see:

http://www.reuters.com/news/globalcoverage/georgiaconflict

For Reuters blogs see:

http://blogs.reuters.com/global/

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