ISTANBUL - TDN with wire dispatches
Russia's deputy chief of staff insisted yesterday that Russian troops and tanks have begun to withdraw from the conflict zone with Georgia, but Tbilisi sees no sign of the start of a promised Russian withdrawal from Georgian territory, its top national security official said.
The statement by Russian Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn came amid uncertainty about whether Russia was fulfilling President Dmitry Medvedev's promise to begin a troop pullout Monday after signing an EU-backed cease-fire.
Russian troops and tanks have controlled a wide swath of Georgia for days, including the country's main east-west highway on which Gori sits, after a short but intense war that shocked the West.
But in Moscow, Nogovitsyn told a briefing "today (Monday), according to the peace plan, the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers and reinforcements has begun." He added that forces were leaving Gori, 90 kilometers (55 miles) west of the capital Tbilisi.
The RIA-Novosti news agency reported that some Russian military vehicles were heading yesterday out of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali toward Russia. The leader of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, also asked Russia to establish a permanent base there, the news agency said.
According to the European Union-brokered peace plan signed by both Medvedev and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, both sides are to pull forces back to the positions they held before fighting broke out Aug. 7 in the separatist province of South Ossetia, which has strong ties to Russia.
Nogovitsyn said the Russian troops are pulling back to South Ossetia and a security zone defined by a 1999 agreement of the "joint control commission" that had been nominally in charge of South Ossetia's status since it split from Georgia in the early 1990s. He said "troops should not be in the territory of Georgia," but it was unclear if that excluded patrols. "I think the Russians will pull out, but will damage Georgia strongly," Tbilisi resident Givi Sikharulidze told an AP television crew. "Georgia will survive, but Russia has lost its credibility in the eyes of the world."
Meanwhile, Georgia sees no sign of the start of a promised Russian withdrawal from Georgian territory, its top national security official said yesterday, despite the Russian military's insistence it had begun.
"The situation still remains unchanged. We see no signs of a pullout," the Secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, Alexander Lomaia, told Agence France-Presse.
"Entry to the city of Gori is practically impossible," he added, referring to checkpoints on the road to Gori, which lies 60 kilometers (40 miles) outside Tbilisi.
He added that there were still "dozens" of Russian checkpoints on the country's main road between the village of Igoeti -- 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Tbilisi -- to the central city of Khashuri.
Also yesterday, top American officials said Washington would rethink its relationship with Moscow after its military drive deep into its much smaller neighbor and called for a swift Russian withdrawal. The United States called an emergency meeting of NATO on Tuesday to discuss the alliance's worsening relationship with Russia.
"I think there needs to be a strong, unified response to Russia to send the message that this kind of behavior, characteristic of the Soviet period, has no place in the 21st century," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday.
But neither Gates nor Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be specific about what punitive actions the United States or the international community might take.
Rice, who was flying to Europe for talks Tuesday with NATO allies about what message the West should send to Russia, said Russia can't use "disproportionate force" against its neighbor and still be welcomed into the halls of international institutions."It's not going to happen that way," she said. "Russia will pay a price."