US looks into Russia’s halt of Georgian offensive

The White House said on Tuesday it was looking into Russia’s assertion that it had halted its widely condemned military offensive in Georgia, an echo of deep Cold War mistrust towards Moscow.

”We’re trying to get an assessment of exactly what it means, what a halt means, and whether it’s taken place, of course,” said spokesperson Tony Fratto, who declined to say whether Washington might provide military aid to Georgia.

United States President George Bush has discussed the crisis by telephone over the past 24 hours with key European allies, including a conversation late on Monday with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a US ally, said Fratto.

On the way back from China on Monday, Bush spoke from his Air Force One airplane to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Polish President Lech Kaczynski, the spokesperson said.

Bush spoke to Georgia’s president after denouncing Russia’s actions shortly after arriving at the White House, and reached out to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday, said Fratto.

‘Irrelevant’
Fratto said the US could provide more humanitarian aid to Georgia ”once the shooting stops” and said it was ”irrelevant” who was to blame for triggering the latest violence over Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.

”I don’t think I’m going to get into the position of blame,” Fratto said when asked whether Tbilisi’s August 6 offensive had triggered the crisis. ”I think it’s actually an irrelevant question.”

He added: ”Regardless, the point is, at this point, is that the parties should pull back” to where they were prior to Georgia’s push into South Ossetia late last week. ”Since August 6, our view is certainly — and certainly the view of Europe and the G7 and a host of other nations — is that the escalation on the part of Russia was disproportionate to their stated intentions.”

The US wants Russia to accept ”the elements of a peace agreement” crafted by European powers and brought to Moscow by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said Fratto, who rebuffed talk of US military aid to Georgia.

”I’m not aware of any of those kinds of specific requests,” he said. ”We are already providing some humanitarian assistance, and we’re reviewing our options for doing more once the shooting stops.”

Fratto rejected any Russian calls for Saakashvili to step down, saying he is Georgia’s duly elected leader and ”it’s not for any outside nation to make demands” that he resign.

The spokesperson said he was not aware of any plans to reach out to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who earlier announced he had ordered a halt to Russian military operations.

Some Georgian officials have said Russian forces have continued to hit targets in Georgia.

Medvedev on Tuesday said Russian peacekeepers would remain in Georgian breakaway regions, and slammed Saakashvili, saying he had acted as a ”lunatic” and had lied about a ceasefire during a conflict over South Ossetia.

”You know, lunatics’ difference from other people is that when they smell blood it is very difficult to stop them. So you have to use surgery,” Medvedev told reporters after talks with Sarkozy.

”As for claims by the Georgian president that the ceasefire has been observed for two days, that’s a lie. Georgian forces continued to fire at peacekeepers, unfortunately people were killed yesterday … There was no ceasefire from the Georgian side,” he said.

Nato membership
Meanwhile, Georgia’s envoy to Nato said on Tuesday the Atlantic alliance had made a mistake by not giving his country a road map for membership at a summit this year, and Russia had taken that as ”a green light” to attack.

”It is our clear position, and this position is strengthened after the Russian violations, that it was a big mistake made by allies that Georgia and Ukraine did not get the membership action plan in Bucharest,” ambassador Revaz Beshidze said.

”We think Russia got this message as a green light, and, mostly, the recent steps we have in the territory of Georgia come from this mistake,” Beshidze told a news conference after meeting ambassadors of the 27-nation military alliance.

Nato pledged at the Bucharest summit that Georgia will one day become a member of the alliance, but it stopped short of offering the two aspirants a formal plan to prepare for accession because several west European allies, led by Germany, had misgivings about expanding the US-led military alliance to Russia’s southern border. — Sapa-AFP, Reuters

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