Russia to withdraw troops which were sent into South Ossetia

Russian president says the Georgian "aggressor" has been punished; Lavrov says Georgian president must step down from office.

russian rocket launcher  (photo credit: AP)
russian rocket launcher
(photo credit: AP)
The Russian and French presidents endorsed a plan on Tuesday evening in which both Russian and Georgian troops will withdraw to their initial positions prior to the outbreak of hostilities. The plan endorsed by Dmitry Medvedev and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy also calls for a fuller discussion on the future status of Georgia's two breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Earlier in the day, Medvedev ordered a halt to military action in Georgia, after five days of air and land attacks that took Russian forces deep into its small US-allied neighbor in the Caucasus. Sarkozy, who had arrived in Moscow carrying Western demands for a Russian pullback, welcomed the decision to halt the fighting but said Georgia's sovereignty, integrity and security must be protected. There was no immediate comment from the United States. After his talks in Moscow, Sarkozy was to head to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to speak with Georgian President Mikhail Saakasvili, who earlier Tuesday declared that his government will now declare the breakaway regions occupied territories. Sarkozy was representing the European Union, since France now holds the EU's rotating presidency. Medvedev said on national television that the military had punished Georgia enough for its attack on South Ossetia. Georgia launched an offensive late Thursday to regain control over the separatist Georgian province, which has close ties to Russia. "The security of our peacekeepers and civilians has been restored," Medvedev said. "The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganized." The Russian president, however, said he ordered the military to defend itself and quell any signs of Georgian resistance. "If there are any emerging hotbeds of resistance or any aggressive actions, you should take steps to destroy them," he told his defense minister at a televised Kremlin meeting. As he started talks with Sarkozy, Medvedev said Georgia must pull its troops from the breakaway regions and pledge not to use force again to solve the conflict. Hours before Medvedev's announcement, Russian forces bombed the town of Gori and launched an offensive in the only part of Abkhazia still under Georgian control, tightening the assault on the beleaguered nation. The UN and NATO had called meetings Tuesday to deal with the conflict, which blew up in South Ossetia and quickly developed into an East-West crisis that raised fears in former Soviet bloc nations of Eastern Europe. Poland's president and the leaders of four ex-Soviet republics headed to Georgia for a meeting with President Mikhail Saakashvili to send a signal of solidarity with Tbilisi. "We may say that the Russian state has once again shown its face, its true face," said Poland's Lech Kaczynski, who will be joined by counterparts from Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and Latvia. But he said it was " good news" that Medvedev ordered a halt to military action. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said earlier Tuesday that Saakashvili should leave office and that Georgian troops should stay out of South Ossetia permanently. Russian troops who had advanced into Georgia on Monday from South Ossetia, took positions near Gori on the main east-west highway as terrified civilians fled the area, and President Saakashvili said his country had effectively been cut in half. Russian jets targeted administrative buildings and a street market in the center of Gori on Tuesday, Georgia's security chief Alexander Lomaia said, but there was no immediate information about casualties. The Russians had also opened a second front in western Georgia on Monday, moving deep into Georgian territory from separatist Abkhazia. They seized a military base in the town of Senaki and occupied police precincts in the town of Zugdidi. Russia's deputy chief of General Staff Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Russian troops weren't in Gori but confirmed they have taken control of an airport in Senaki. Senaki is 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of Abkhazia. Nogovitsyn said at a briefing that Medvedev's order means that the Russian troops would stay where they are. He said they will retaliate if come under Georgian attack. Lomaia said that Russian troops also attacked Georgian forces who continued to hold the northern part of Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge, Lomaia said, Abkhazian officials said their own forces were carrying out the artillery attacks and that Russian forces were not involved in that fighting. At least 9,000 Russian troops and 350 armored vehicles were in Abkhazia, according to a Russian military commander. The Russian onslaught, accompanied by relentless Russian air raids on Georgian territory, angered the West, bringing the toughest words yet from US President George W. Bush. Georgia, which sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets bypassing Russia, has long been a source of contention between the West and a resurgent Russia, which is seeking to strengthen its role as the dominant energy supplier to the continent. Saakashvili endorsed an EU plan calling for an immediate cease-fire, in talks Monday with French and Finnish foreign ministers. Bush had demanded Monday that Russia end a "dramatic and brutal escalation" of violence in Georgia, agree to an immediate cease-fire and accept international mediation. "Russia has invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century," Bush said in a televised statement from the White House. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said more than 2,000 people have been killed in South Ossetia since Friday, most of them Ossetians with Russian passports. The figures could not be independently confirmed, but refugees said hundreds had been killed. Both separatist provinces are backed by Russia. Russian officials had given signals that the fighting could pave the way for them to be absorbed into Russia. Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s.