Russia patrolling outside security zone

Top Russian general: Troop presence to remain in key port city of Poti; UK casts doubt over pullout.

state-religion survey 224 (photo credit: )
state-religion survey 224
(photo credit: )
A top Russian general on Saturday said his country's forces will continue to patrol a key Georgian Black Sea port even though the city lies outside the 'security zones" where Russia claims it has the right to station soldiers in Georgia. The statement by deputy head of the general staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, reported by Russian news agencies, came a day after Russia said it had pulled back forces from Georgia in accordance with an EU-brokered cease-fire agreement. Russia interprets the accord as allowing it to keep a substantial military presence in Georgia - a point hotly disputed by the United States, France and Britain. The Russian troop pullback allowed residents of the strategic central city of Gori to begin returning two weeks after they fled Russian air attacks and advancing troops. Chaotic crowds of people and cars were jammed outside the city Saturday as Georgian police tried to control the mass return by setting up makeshift checkpoints - an ironic echo of the Russian checkpoints that had ringed the city a day earlier. The Russian tanks and troops are now gone from Gori - but some troops are just a few kilometers up the road at a new checkpoint on the edge of the Russian-proclaimed security zone around the border of South Ossetia. Another zone is near Abkhazia, another separatist region backed by Russia. On Saturday afternoon, several thousand protesters waving Georgian flags approached the Russian position on the outskirts of Gori. Some soldiers came out of their trenches, but there was no immediate sign of unrest. The United States, France and Britain protested that Russia has no claim to the alleged "security zones" under the cease-fire accord. The Russians "have without a doubt failed to live up to their obligations," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in Washington. "Establishing checkpoints, buffer zones, are definitely not part of the agreement." Georgia's state minister on reintegration, Temur Yakobashvili, told the AP formation of a buffer zone on Georgian territory outside South Ossetia "is absolutely illegal." Russia claims it is allowed to be in these zones under peacekeeping agreements that ended fighting in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s. But although Poti, the Black Sea port, is outside the buffer zone for the Abkhazia conflict, Nogovitsyn said Russian troops who have set up positions on the city's outskirts won't leave and will patrol the city. "Poti is not in the security zone. But that doesn't mean that we will sit behind the fence watch as they drive around in Hummers," Nogovitsyn said, making an acid reference to four US Humvees the Russians seized in Poti this week. The vehicles were used in joint US-Georgian military exercises. Georgia has pushed to join NATO, a move that has angered Russia. Russian forces also set up a checkpoint near Senaki, the home of a major military base in western Georgia. Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said Russian soldiers had severely looted the base, taking away military equipment, televisions and even air conditioners. By keeping troops in Georgia proper - rather than returning them to Russia or to the two separatist republics - Moscow clearly hopes to intimidate its small, pro-Western neighbor. The pullback came two weeks to the day after thousands of Russian soldiers roared into the former Soviet republic following an assault by Georgian forces on separatist South Ossetia. The fighting left hundreds dead and nearly 160,000 people homeless. It also has deeply strained relations between Moscow and the West. Russia has frozen its military cooperation with NATO, Moscow's Cold War foe, underscoring a growing division in Europe. US President George W. Bush, vacationing at his ranch in Texas, conferred with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and "the two agreed that Russia is not in compliance and that Russia needs to come into compliance now," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe on Friday. "They have not completely withdrawn from areas considered undisputed territory, and they need to do that," Johndroe said. In South Ossetia, Russian troops erected 18 peacekeeping posts in the "security zone" and planned to build another 18 peacekeeping posts around Abkhazia. A total of 2,600 heavily armed troops the Russians call peacekeepers will be deployed in those regions. Regardless of Friday's pullback, Russia, Georgia and the West are certain to continue the diplomatic struggle over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russian parliament was expected to discuss recognizing the independence of the separatist regions Monday. In an interview with the AP, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity indicated that ethnic Georgians will not be allowed to return to their homes in South Ossetia. "There is nothing left anymore" for them to come back to, he noted. That is due to extensive looting and burning of Georgian homes in South Ossetia. In the village of Achabeti, an AP reporter saw Ossetians remove chairs, window frames and whatever else they could carry from abandoned Georgian houses.