Russia says troops will begin pulling out of Georgia today

Monday, August 18, 2008

GORI, Georgia -- Russia's president promised to start withdrawing forces from positions in Georgia today, but suggested troops could stay in the breakaway region at the heart of the fighting that has reignited Cold War tensions.

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.

"I think that there is a real concern that Russia has turned the corner here and is headed back toward its past rather than toward its future, and my hope is that we will see actions in the weeks and months to come that provide us some reassurance," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday.

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 tension over separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In Gori, a strategic central city in the small former Soviet republic, there were signs of a looser Russian grip -- and scenes of desperation as Georgians crowded around aid vehicles and grasped for loaves of bread.

Georgia hit the Russia-backed separatist region of South Ossetia with a massive barrage Aug. 7, and Russian troops rolled in, advancing far into the Caucasus Mountain nation and raising fears of a long-term occupation of a country at the center of a power struggle between a resurgent Russia and the West.

The troops would leave, a Russian lawmaker said, "sooner or later."

"But how much time it will take, it depends, definitely, on how Georgians will continue to behave," said the lawmaker, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of a Russian parliament foreign affairs committee.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned Russia's president Sunday 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 today, headed toward South Ossetia. He stopped short of promising they would return to Russia.

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.

But Medvedev's silence on South Ossetia has fueled fears that Russia could annex the region, which -- like Abkhazia -- broke from Georgia government control in the 1990s and has declared independence.

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