Russian military column leaves Georgia

A Russian military column crossed from Georgia back into Russia on Wednesday after Western governments raised pressure for a quick and full pull-out under an international ceasefire deal.

A Reuters correspondent near the Roki tunnel that links Russia with Georgia’s pro-Russian rebel province of South Ossetia said a dozen trucks crossed the frontier at about midday.

He said he could see more Russian military vehicles in the distance moving from South Ossetia towards the border. There was no sign of armoured vehicles.

Western powers, working through the United Nations and Nato, have raised pressure on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to speed a promised pull-out after two weeks of violent confrontation. Impatience is turning to scepticism.

“Three times Medvedev has said they are starting the withdrawal and they have not,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted in the International Herald Tribune newspaper as saying. “We cannot accept this kind of blindness, not accepting international law.”

At the United Nations, Western powers pushed for a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate Russian withdrawal from Georgia, but veto-holding Russia declined to back it.

A draft text referred to “the territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders”. Russia argues that phrasing implies the pro-Russian rebel region of South Ossetia, at the centre of the conflict, should be reintegrated into Georgia proper.

Russia says this is a remote prospect after the bloodshed of the last two weeks.

Near the village of Igoeti, the closest Russian checkpoint to the capital, Tbilisi, Russian troops wearing helmets with the sky-blue bands of peacekeepers were digging into foxholes at the side of the road. There was no sign of Russian convoys on the move there, about 45km from the capital.

The crisis erupted on August 7 and 8 when Georgia tried to recapture South Ossetia, which broke with Tbilisi in 1992. Russian forces hit back, thrusting beyond the region into the Georgian heartland, overrunning the army in fierce fighting.

Medvedev, who has worked closely during the crisis with his mentor and powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, announced on Sunday his troops would begin withdrawing on Monday.

But Washington said on Tuesday it had yet to see any serious pull-out and accused Russia of targeting civilians and wanting to strangle Georgia.

“It’s becoming more and more the outlaw in this conflict,” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of Russia, escalating a stream of criticism from Washington.

“They intend and probably still do intend to strangle Georgia and its economy,” she said in Brussels, where she attended a Nato meeting on Tuesday that proclaimed support for alliance-aspirant Georgia.

Peaceful resistance
Nato said it was freezing contacts with Russia, but stopped short of promising the membership Georgia seeks.

The Kremlin quoted Medvedev on Tuesday as telling French President Nicolas Sarkozy by telephone that most Russian forces would withdraw to Russia or to South Ossetia by August 22, leaving some troops in a buffer zone around the breakaway region.

Some Russian troops have already begun adopting the colours of peacekeepers, but there is still uncertainty over where and in what numbers they may be stationed after the pull-out.

Medvedev told Sarkozy he agreed to the presence of observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the buffer zone, a French statement said.

Nato ministers, meeting in an emergency session in Brussels on Tuesday, agreed to suspend regular contacts with Russia. But they did not announce moves to speed up Georgian accession to the Western military alliance, as Tbilisi had hoped.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Nato’s response to the conflict was biased and accused the Atlantic alliance of siding with a “criminal regime” in Tbilisi.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, branded a dangerous madman by Moscow, reaffirmed his determination to resist what he sees as Russian attempts to bully Georgia back into Soviet-era subservience.

“As a European nation Georgians have continued to resist in peaceful ways and this peaceful resistance will continue and intensify,” he said.

“The only thing I can promise the Russians is that we will not fall, Georgia will not fall and that civilian, peaceful resistance will ... expand and we will eventually create conditions where they have no other options but to leave.”—Reuters

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