ISTANBUL - TDN with wire dispatches
NATO foreign ministers agreed yesterday that they "cannot continue business as usual" with Russia, as a trickle of Russian armor left the key Georgian town of Gori.
"The Alliance is considering seriously the implications of Russia's actions for the NATO-Russia relationship," the 26 NATO foreign ministers said in a joint statement following crisis talks in Brussels.
"We have determined that we cannot continue with business as usual," they said, adding that there would have to reassess the NATO-Russia Council, established in 2002 as a framework for dialogue.
Also yesterday, seven armored vehicles, three tanks and other Russian army vehicles left Gori, which lies only 60 kilometers (35 miles) west of the capital Tbilisi.
"This is one of the first columns to leave Georgia," a Russian lieutenant colonel said.
Russian infantry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said similar withdrawals of Russian arms and soldiers took place elsewhere.
Russian troops were supposed to have started leaving on Monday, six days after a ceasefire was negotiated ending the conflict over South Ossetia, the Georgian region run by Moscow-backed separatists.
The Georgian interior ministry described the Gori pullback as a "show aimed at creating the illusion of a withdrawal."
"It is a show aimed at creating the illusion of a withdrawal," ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told Agence France-Presse. "No tank, no Russian soldier has left Georgia."
In the latest expression of Western anger over Russia's assault to drive Georgian forces from South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia, NATO told Moscow to expect a deterioration in relations.
"We have determined that we cannot continue with business as usual," NATO foreign ministers said in a statement after a crisis meeting in Brussels.
"We call on Russia to demonstrate -- both in word and deed -- its continued commitment to the principles upon which we agreed to base our relationship," they added.
Russia is not respecting the peace plan, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said. "The future of our relations with Russia will depend on the concrete actions Russia will take to abide by the words of President Dmitry Medvedev... which is not happening at the moment."
Russia sent in a huge force on August 8 to drive off a Georgian assault against the South Ossetia separatists. Troops subsequently occupied swathes of Georgian territory.
Under the French-brokered peace agreement Russian combat forces must leave, but Russia is allowed to maintain "peacekeepers" in South Ossetia, as it already does in Abkhazia.
There is little clarity about how many troops will remain, their mandate or their scope of operations. Russian officials have made clear they are in no hurry to withdraw.
Konashenkov said the move would take longer than the Russian army's original surge for "logistical reasons."
Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said a complete withdrawal "depends on the policy of (Georgian President Mikheil) Saakashvili and the action of his forces." Rogozin, previously a leading nationalist politician in Moscow, also branded Saakashvili a "Nazi."
OSCE to send observers:
Meanwhile, the pan-European security organization the OSCE said it had received Russia's agreement to send 20 military observers to Georgia immediately.
"We have the green light from 55 member states of OSCE but we are waiting for the green light from Tbilisi," said Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb, the organization's chairman.
In a rare gesture of goodwill prisoners were exchanged at a checkpoint 19 miles from Tbilisi. Fifteen Georgians were exchanged for five Russians, the Georgian ministry of defence said. The Georgians, two of them wounded, had earlier emerged from Russian helicopters that landed near the site.
But some reports said yesterday that Russians took prisoners in the key Black Sea port of Poti. Russian soldiers held blindfolded Georgian servicemen at gunpoint on top of military vehicles and commandeered U.S. Humvees yesterday in Georgia port, reported The Associated Press. Russian forces blocked access to the naval and commercial ports yesterday morning and towed the missile boat Dioskuria, one of the navy's most sophisticated vessels, out of sight of observers. A loud explosion was heard minutes later.
Several hours later, an Associated Press photographer saw Russian trucks and armored personnel carriers leaving the port with about 20 blindfolded and handcuffed men riding on them. Port spokesman Eduard Mashevoriani said the men were Georgian soldiers.