Archive for Sunday, September 14, 2008

Russians pull back, but remain in Georgia for now

September 14, 2008

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Russian soldiers with a Russian flag sit atop an armored vehicle Saturday as they pull out of their positions heading to Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia near Zugdidi, Georgia. Hundreds of Russian forces packed up and withdrew from positions Saturday in western Georgia.

Russian soldiers with a Russian flag sit atop an armored vehicle Saturday as they pull out of their positions heading to Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia near Zugdidi, Georgia. Hundreds of Russian forces packed up and withdrew from positions Saturday in western Georgia.

— Russian soldiers and armored vehicles pulled back from positions deep in western Georgia on Saturday, meeting a closely watched withdrawal deadline a month after the war between the former Soviet republics.

A Georgian policeman was shot dead near the edge of a breakaway Moscow-backed province, adding to tensions in areas where Russian troops are supposed to cede control to unarmed European Union monitors within weeks.

Georgia's government, meanwhile, pressed its claim that ethnic Georgians are being persecuted in South Ossetia, the separatist region at the heart of the war. Officials said Ossetian paramilitary fighters doused Georgians with kerosene and ordered them to leave their villages.

Starting before dawn, hundreds of Russian soldiers packed up their gear and abandoned earthen-walled bases they had set up on the outskirts of the Black Sea port of Poti and at three other locations in western Georgia that they had promised to leave by Monday.

"They have fulfilled the commitment" made in an agreement worked out by French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week, Georgian Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia told The Associated Press.

But Lomaia said that even with the departure of those 250 soldiers and 20 armored vehicles pulled, some 1,200 Russian soldiers still remained at 19 positions inside Georgia.

He stressed that Georgia - like the European Union and the United States - demands a full Russian withdrawal to prewar positions, in accordance with a cease-fire that Sarkozy brokered a month ago.

Russia is not willing to do that and is tightening its grip on the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Pushed by the West, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised last week to withdraw from the Poti positions and from posts ringing the two separatist regions within 10 days of the deployment of 200 EU monitors in buffer zones around the two areas. The EU monitors are supposed to be in place by Oct. 1.

But the Kremlin has announced plans to maintain 7,600 soldiers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia themselves and has formally recognized them as independent nations, deepening the worst crisis in Russia's rocky post-Cold War relations with the West.

Russia is also pushing to keep Western monitors outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, saying the EU observers' job is to protect the two provinces against Georgian aggression. The U.S. and EU want observers inside the two regions, where they are concerned about allegations of abuses against ethnic Georgians.

Georgia made new charges Saturday, saying Ossetian fighters poured kerosene on several ethnic Georgians and ordered them out of their villages late Friday.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria said Ossetian paramilitaries first set fire to houses owned by ethnic Georgians in two South Ossetian villages, Koshka and Disevi.

"Then they poured kerosene on several residents of the villages and told them to leave," Bokeria told the AP.

He said a number of residents, possibly as many as 200, had left the villages and were traveling to Georgian-controlled territory.

The New York-based activist group Human Rights Watch also has accused Ossetians of engaging in systematic harassment of Georgian civilians since the war.

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