US says Russian pullback in Georgia ‘far too slow’

Russia promised to complete a partial pull back of troops from Georgia by the end of Friday but said an unspecified number of ”peacekeeping forces” would stay inside the country, angering the West.

A top United States general visiting Georgia condemned the pull-out as ”far too little, far too slow”.

”If they are moving, it’s at a snail’s pace,” General John Craddock, head of the US European Command, told reporters at Tbilisi airport, where he watched the arrival of a US military plane bringing in aid.

Russia and Georgia went to war after Tbilisi attempted on August 7 and 8 to retake the Russian-backed rebel province of South Ossetia by force, provoking a massive counterattack from Moscow by land, sea and air.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said in a statement that military units supporting its peacekeepers would pull back by the end of Friday to South Ossetia from Georgia proper. President Dmitry Medvedev made a similar pledge earlier this week.

But within a new Russian-controlled security zone inside Georgia, the Defence Ministry statement said ”peacekeepers at special checkpoints in the quantities needed to ensure security will remain”.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said he would not accept that. ”There will be no buffer zones. We will never live with any buffer zones. We’ll never allow anything like this,” he said in Tbilisi.

Russia says it needs to maintain a force in Georgia to prevent further bloodshed and protect South Ossetians — most of whom hold Russian passports — from Georgian attacks. Tbilisi says Moscow is trying to annex its territory.

With the size of the new security zone unclear and the difference between regular Russian troops and Russian peacekeepers increasingly blurred, it was uncertain what Moscow’s pledges actually amounted to.

”There are some checkpoints where one day they are federal troops and the next day peacekeepers,” said Kakha Lomaia, secretary of Georgia’s security council.

The six-point peace plan brokered by France gives Russia the right to take unspecified additional security measures in Georgia pending the arrival of an international force.

But with the United Nations deadlocked since the start of the conflict, the chances of agreeing a resolution on Georgia looked slim.

Russia pressed on Thursday for speedy adoption by the UN Security Council of its resolution endorsing the peace plan but Western powers said they first wanted Moscow to make a substantial withdrawal of troops and agree wording clarifying where Russian forces would be deployed in future.

Lomaia said Georgia, which is struggling to repair the damage from Russian bombing and occupation, would concentrate for now on trying to agree the removal of Moscow’s troops from the key east-west highway, then work on other issues.

Russian troops have blocked the road since occupying parts of central Georgia, stopping trucks from moving and damaging the small, former Soviet country’s fragile economy. A key east-west rail link was severed by an explosion last Saturday.

In Washington, the World Bank said it was sending a mission to Georgia on Friday to assess the economic damage caused by the fighting. The Bank would also set up a fund to help pay for Georgia’s reconstruction.

Georgia’s close ally Washington was to underline its support for Tbilisi on Friday by sending the US navy destroyer McFall into the Black Sea, the back yard of the Russian navy, to deliver relief supplies to Georgia.

Nato this week suspended contacts with Russia in protest of the conflict and Russia hit back by halting some military cooperation events with the alliance. It was not immediately clear whether a key accord allowing the transit of non-lethal equipment through Russia for use in the Afghan war was affected.

Battle tanks
A Reuters reporter on Thursday saw a column of T-72 battle tanks moving out of Georgia and into Russia through a mountain tunnel, but elsewhere most Russian units showed little sign they were preparing to withdraw.

In South Ossetia, one of Russia’s best-known conductors gave an emotional concert amid the ruins of the capital Tskhinvali on Thursday, performing a symphony which reminds Russians of the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II.

An ethnic Ossetian and main conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev lambasted Georgia for shelling the region’s capital and drew a parallel with the attacks on New York on September 11 2001.

Gergiev — who grew up in the neighbouring Russian region of North Ossetia — visited the devastated Jewish Quarter of Tskhinvali before conducting Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony at a special concert on the town’s central square. – Reuters

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