Bush: No debate on breakaway provinces

US president says Russia cannot lay claim to South Ossetia, Abkhazia; some Russian troops pull back.

george bush 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
george bush 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
US President George W. Bush sent a stern warning to Russia on Saturday that it cannot lay claim to two breakaway provinces in neighboring Georgia, a US ally, and said there was no room for debate on that point. Searching for signs of progress, Bush said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's signing Saturday of a cease-fire plan was "an important development. That's a hopeful step," Bush told reporters at his ranch. "Russia now needs to honor that agreement" and withdraw forces from the much smaller former Soviet state. The Russian foreign minister said Thursday that Georgia could "forget about" getting back the two separatist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Medvedev also met with their leaders in Kremlin this past week, raising the prospect that Moscow could absorb the regions even though the territory is internationally recognized as being within Georgia's borders. Bush disputed the claim that two areas may not be part of Georgia's future. They are of Georgia now, he said at the ranch, and reaffirmed that they are within recognized borders. There is "no room for debate on this," the president said. Russian forces pulled back Saturday from positions in a town not far from Georgia's capital after Medvedev signed the cease-fire deal, but his foreign minister said the broader withdrawal would be contingent on further security measures. Russian soldiers had dug shallow foxholes in the center of Igoeti, some 50 kilometers from Tbilisi, but abandoned them later in the day. Tanks and troops were still in place on a hillside on the edge of Igoeti and there were no immediate signs of a pullout from the strategic city of Gori, about 30 kilometers up the road. The military movement came around the same time that officials said Medvedev had signed a cease-fire deal that set the stage for a Russian troop withdrawal after more than a week of warfare in the former Soviet republic that lies at the heart of increasing tensions between Russia and the West. The agreement, also signed a day earlier by Georgian President Mikhail Saakshvili, calls for both Russian and Georgian forces to pull back to positions they held before fighting erupted Aug. 8. Georgia had 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 US-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. The cease-fire calls for Russian troops to pull back to positions they held in South Ossetia before the fighting but allows limited Russian patrols in Georgia just outside the province. Medvedev signed the order in the Russian resort city of Sochi, where the president has a summer residence, Medvedev spokesman Alexei Pavlov said. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later said Medvedev had ordered its implementation. But Lavrov, in televised remarks, also said the Russian pullback would take place "as further security measures are taken." Asked how much time it would take, he responded: "As much as is needed." He was not specific about the security measures but accused Georgia of undermining security. "This depends not only upon us," Lavrov said. "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 dug into positions on a hillside with a view of the area, possible defensive positions as their comrades 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.