/ 16 August 2008

Russia signs ceasefire but troops still on the move

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a peace deal with Georgia on Saturday but his troops again underlined their grip by pushing even deeper toward the capital, Tbilisi.

Medvedev signed the French-brokered deal a day after Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili and a week after Russian forces invaded neighbouring Georgia in support of separatists in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions.

”President Medvedev informed members of the security council of the Russian Federation that he had signed the document on principles” for resolving the conflict, Kremlin spokesperson Natalya Timakova said.

The deal obliges all forces in the ex-Soviet republic to withdraw to positions held prior to the Russian invasion.

However, Russia, which routed Georgia’s tiny United States-trained army in the fighting for control of South Ossetia, is allowed to take unspecified extra security measures.

Overnight on Friday, the Russians demonstrated their dominance by sending a small armoured detachment to within half an hour’s drive from Tbilisi.

Troops, backed by two tanks and four armoured personnel carriers, were seen by an Agence France-Presse correspondent digging in at Igoeti, on the main road from South Ossetia to Tbilisi, just 30km away.

They left after several hours, watched by angry Georgian police.

”We don’t know what’s happening. Ask the Russians,” said one Georgian police officer in the area who declined to give his name. ”They are not following the agreement. What do they want here?”

Russian troops remained in control of the main checkpoint into Gori, 60km north-west of Tbilisi. They blocked journalists from entering the town, which is outside South Ossetia and was formerly a base for Georgian forces.

Georgian National Security Council secretary Alexander Lomaia said that the Russian army was ”reinforcing their positions around” Gori.

A villager from near Gori, Otur Berikashvili (52), said he was desperately trying to get back to the city to deliver food to his family. ”I want to go to Gori, I’ve left my family there. I am bringing food for them but they won’t let me pass,” he said.

Amid continued reports of atrocities, dozens of haggard Georgian captives were marched by armed guards through the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, walking with their heads bowed and their hands behind their backs. Many had bruised faces.

One woman said: ”Those are the prisoners? But they’re just old men!”

”I’m from Tbilisi. I was here working when the war broke out. I was taken in,” one bearded captive said before an armed guard told an Agence France-Presse reporter to leave the area. Others appeared fearful and refused to talk.

During her visit to Tbilisi for talks with Saakashvili on Friday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted the peace accord required Russian forces leave Georgia, a close US ally.

”With the signing of this accord, all Russian troops, and any paramilitary and irregular troops that entered with them, must leave immediately,” Rice said.

She said that Medvedev’s previous ”verbal assurance” to halt military operations ”clearly was not honoured”.

US President George Bush also urged Moscow to withdraw its troops and stop ”bullying” Georgia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later promised Rice by telephone that Russia would ”faithfully” implement the ceasefire accord, a US official said.

Western sponsors of a United Nations Security Council resolution to formalise the ceasefire deal pushed for a vote by week’s end. However the text is being held up by Moscow’s balking at inserting any reference to Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Russian troops entered Georgia in response to a Georgian offensive on August 7 to retake South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia in the 1990s.

Russia strongly supports South Ossetia and the second breakaway region of Abkhazia and has given Russian passports to most people in the territories in what Georgia described as a policy of annexation.

Saakashvili has said that one-third of Georgia’s territory is now under Russian ”occupation”.

Medvedev said the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia could not live under Georgian control again.

Experts from the US Agency for International Development (USAid) began arriving on Friday to assess the needs of the war-torn country, joining a US military assessment team that arrived the day before, officials said.

Armed gunmen held up UN workers in Gori on Thursday and stole their vehicles, and aid agencies have complained of the difficulty of bringing aid to areas where it is needed most.

The latest estimate by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees put the number of displaced people in the conflict region at more than 118 000. — Sapa-AFP