Russia: Pullout from conflict zone underway

Unclear exactly what Russia believes the dimensions of the zone are.

Russian inspects tanks 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Russian inspects tanks 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Russia's deputy chief of staff insisted Monday that Russian troops and tanks have begun to withdraw from the conflict zone with Georgia, but left unclear exactly what Russia thought the dimensions of that zone were. The statement by Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn came amid uncertainty about whether Russia was fulfilling President Dmitry Medvedev's promise to begin a troop pullout Monday after signing an EU-backed cease-fire. Earlier in the day, Russian forces around the strategically key Georgian city of Gori had shown no sign of moving away and even appeared to be solidifying their positions. Russian troops and tanks have controlled a wide swath of Georgia for days, including the country's main east-west highway on which Gori sits, after a short but intense war that shocked the West. But in Moscow, 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, 90 kilometers west of the capital Tbilisi. 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. It was not immediately possible to confirm the alleged Russian withdrawal with AP journalists in Gori. 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 separatist province of South Ossetia, which has strong ties to Russia. 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 "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. The United States called an emergency meeting of NATO on Tuesday to discuss the alliance's worsening relationship with Russia. "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 welcomed into the halls of 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. Medvedev had told Sarkozy that Russian troops would begin pulling back on Monday, but stopped short of promising they would return to Russia. A US official told The Associated Press that the Russian military moved SS-21 missile launchers into South Ossetia on Friday. From there, the missiles would have the capability of reaching Tbilisi, and Georgia would surely regard the move as intimidating. 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 tried to retake control of South Ossetia. Russia, which had peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia, sent in thousands of reinforcements and immediately drove out the Georgian forces. Georgian troops also were forced out of another Russian-backed separatist region, the Black Sea province of Abkhazia. Russian troops then pressed deep into Georgia, including surrounding 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 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 Kikhvi, a mostly-ethnic Georgian village in South Ossetia where homes 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. Russian peacekeepers were also in control of a Georgian power plant Sunday near 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. US Brig. Gen. Jon Miller arrived in Georgia to assess the need for further humanitarian aid. So far, at least six US military flights carrying aid have arrived in Tbilisi, ferrying everything from cots, sleeping bags and medicine to emergency shelters and syringes. In Vienna, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was meeting Monday and may decide whether to increase its mission in Georgia with another 100 unarmed military monitors. The OSCE already has 200 monitors in Georgia.