Russia: Troop pullout to begin Monday

Sarkozy tells Medvedev that failure to comply with ceasefire accord can have "serious consequences."

Russian inspects tanks 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Russian inspects tanks 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russian troops will begin pulling out of Georgia on Monday, after his military issued a flurry of conflicting reports about whether or not a withdrawal had begun. Still, Medvedev made no mention of leaving South Ossetia, the separatist province at the heart of the 11-day military conflict between Russia and Georgia. Medvedev said the troops would pull back toward South Ossetia from positions deeper in Georgia, according to a Kremlin statement Sunday. Western pressure has been increasing on Moscow to withdraw its forces under the cease-fire deal Medvedev signed. The United States and France have already charged that Russia was defying the truce, as Russian tanks and troops continued to roam freely across a wide swath of Georgia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned Sunday that Russia would face "serious consequences" if it did not begin the pullout and spoke earlier in the day with Medvedev by phone. German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, for more talks Sunday, and the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, also came to check on the thousands of refugees uprooting by the fighting. A Russian general in Georgia, Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Borisov, told The Associated Press that a "planned withdrawal" from South Ossetia was under way Sunday - but the report was denied by a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman in Moscow. A spokeswoman for the South Ossetian defense ministry, Irina Gagloyeva, said South Ossetian police were replacing Russian peacekeepers in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Elsewhere in Georgia, it appeared very clear that Russian troops were staying put, building ramparts around tanks and posting sentries on a hill near Igoeti, a central Georgia town only 30 miles west of Tbilisi. West of Igoeti, Russian troops were deployed in large numbers in and around the strategic central city of Gori, but their presence was reduced Sunday. Russian troops still effectively control the main artery running through the western half of Georgia because they surround Gori as well as the city of Senaki and the Senaki air base. Both cities are on the main east-west highway that slices through two Georgian mountain ranges. Russia also confirmed Sunday that it had taken over a major power plant in western Georgia. Georgia, bordering the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Under the leadership of its pro-Western president, Mikhail Saakashvili, George has sought NATO membership and has emerged as a proxy for conflict between an emboldened Russia and the West. The EU-backed cease-fire agreement calls for Georgian and Russian troops to withdraw to the positions they held before fighting broke out Aug. 7. "From my point of view - and I am in contact with the French - the Russians are perhaps already not honoring their word," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday. Rice noted that the cease-fire, negotiated by Sarkozy, the current leader of the European Union, outlined a very limited mandate for the soldiers that Russia calls peacekeepers who were in Georgia when hostilities escalated. She said they can have limited patrols within the two separatist areas but are not allowed to go into Georgia. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Saturday that Russia would not withdraw troops until Moscow is satisfied that security measures allowed under the agreement are effective. He said Russia would strengthen its peacekeeping contingent in South Ossetia. Asked how much time it would take, Lavrov responded: "As much as is needed." President George W. Bush warned Saturday that Russia cannot lay claim to the two separatist regions in US-backed Georgia - South Ossetia and Abkhazia - even though their sympathies lie with Moscow. "There is no room for debate on this matter," the president, with Rice, told reporters at his Texas ranch. On the ground, Bush's words appeared to have little sway. Georgia's Foreign Ministry accused Russian army units and separatist fighters in Abkhazia of taking over 13 villages and the Inguri hydropower plant on Saturday, shifting the border of the Black Sea province toward the Inguri River. Russia confirmed Sunday that its peacekeepers were in control of the power plant. The villages and plant are in a UN-established buffer zone on Abkhazia's edge, and it appeared the separatists were bolstering their control over the zone after forcing Georgians out of their last stronghold in Abkhazia earlier this week. The Russians also controlled the western Georgian city of Senaki as well as access to the Black Sea port city of Poti and the road north to Abkhazia. AP reporters have seen Russian troops there for days but noted a growing contingent Saturday and artillery guns and tanks pointed out from Senaki. An Associated Press Television News team saw Russian soldiers pulling out of Poti on Saturday after sinking Georgian naval vessels and ransacking the port. A picture of Saakashvili in the looted Coast Guard office had been vandalized. "They have robbed the military base and taken almost everything, and they have burned or sunk the stuff they could not carry," port worker Zurab Simonia said. The faithful in Tbilisi went to church Sunday, praying and lighting candles in the city's Holy Trinity Cathedral, a Georgian Orthodox church near the president's residence. "I wish peace for my country and for our children. We do not want to live in fear," resident Ia Kvirkvelia told an AP television news crew. A large anti-Russian banner hung Sunday in front of the Parliament building in central Tbilisi: "No war, Russia go home." In Italy, Pope Benedict XVI called Sunday for the immediate creation of a humanitarian corridor to speed aid to refugees and for all sides to respect the rights of ethnic minorities. "I call for the opening, without delay, of a humanitarian corridor between the region of southern Ossetia and the rest of Georgia, so that the dead, still abandoned, can receive a dignified burial, the wounded can be properly treated, and those who want to reach their loved ones can do so," Benedict said, speaking from the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo. In South Ossetia, an AP reporter saw a Russian officer and armed Ossetians using older Georgian men as forced laborers Saturday hauling debris in Tskhinvali. The conflict erupted after Georgia launched a massive barrage Aug. 7 to try to take control of South Ossetia. The Russian army quickly overwhelmed its neighbor's forces and drove deep into Georgia, raising fears that of a long-term Russian occupation. Lavrov said Thursday that Georgia can "forget about" getting back South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke from Georgian government control in early 1990s wars. Russia views the growing relationship between the US and Georgia as an encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence. The fighting came amid US efforts to close a deal on a missile shield based in former Soviet satellites in Europe.