Georgia: Russia leaving Gori, police return

11:03, 14 August 2008
World
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Russia may have 15,000 or more troops in the region - CNN

Georgian police have begun returning to Gori as Russian forces move out, Georgia`s Interior Ministry says, according to CNN.

The police would establish positions and checkpoints and try to keep law and order, the Interior Ministry said Thursday.

Their return to the city was negotiated with Russia Wednesday, Georgian officials said. Once the police had established their presence, the Russians troops -- some of whom are still in the city -- would fully withdraw, the Georgian officials said.

The police`s return to Gori is a significant transition of power in what has been a major flashpoint of the conflict. Georgian troops retreated from Gori three days earlier under heavy fire from the Russians, and most of the city`s residents fled amid the fighting.

Russian authorities said their troops had moved into the area to guard a large arsenal of weapons and other military hardware that had been left unattended during the conflict over the separatist Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Georgia and Russia have alternately accused each other of violating a cease-fire brokered Tuesday, after Russian troops moved into the Gori region below South Ossetia.

U.S. President George W. Bush said he was concerned about the action and was dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to France and then to Georgia`s capital, Tbilisi, to confer with government leaders. She then planned to visit Brussels, Belgium, to talk with NATO officials about the situation.

Bush also said he had ordered Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to oversee a humanitarian mission to Georgia. The first cargo plane carrying U.S. aid arrived in Georgia Wednesday.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, acting as the president of the European Union, negotiated the cease-fire, which called for Russia and U.S. ally Georgia to return their forces to the positions they held August 6, before Georgia`s crackdown on South Ossetia.

"The United States and the world expect Russia to honor that commitment," Bush told reporters Wednesday. 

He said he had received reports contrary to Russian assurances that it had halted military operations.

Bush said he had been told the Russian military had blocked Georgia`s major east-west highway and had soldiers at the main port, Poti. There were reports that some Georgian ships had been attacked, he said.

U.S. officials said it believed Russia may have 15,000 or more troops in the region, between 5,000 and 7,000 more than when the fighting began.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there were no Russian troops in Poti but there were soldiers on the outskirts of Gori and Senaki, to the west. Senaki is south of Abkhazia.

"I specially checked it with the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces. There are no Russian servicemen supporting the peacekeeping operation in Georgia in Poti," Lavrov said outside Moscow.

As for the troops near the other cities, he said: "We are not making any secret of that. They are staying there to neutralize the large arsenal of weapons and other military hardware in the areas of Gori and Senaki. These arsenals remain unguarded. Apparently those who guarded them fled."

Lavrov said Russia`s operations were about "peace-enforcement" in respect of Georgia, which "violates all of its obligations."

International agreements signed in the early 1990s allow Russian peacekeepers to maintain a presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as part of a force including Georgians and South Ossetians.

However, Russian forces pushed deeper into the country, south of Gori, Wednesday.

Georgian officials said they had anticipated the Russian troop movement, which was destined for an abandoned military base.

Meanwhile, U.S. defense officials said the Russian soldiers were trying to reinforce their rightful military presence in the two separatist regions.

"We believe the Russians are consolidating their enclaves in South Ossetia and Abkhazia ... and will not significantly expand their ground presence in Georgia," one official said.

"We believe the Russians will fall back to their pre-crisis boundaries. We do expect Russia to retain a military presence in both enclaves for the long term."

The official added: "We do see a halt to offensive military operations. If there is a formal cease-fire, we believe the Russians will adhere to it, while reserving the right to use military force to respond to threats against their troops."

Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russian forces had been "advancing slowly but surely towards" Georgia`s capital in violation of the cease-fire agreement.

"The cease-fire never stood in the first place," Saakashvili told CNN`s "Situation Room." "Russia never intended to stop fire."

He said Russian tanks continued to ravage Georgia towns and villages, "killing people, destroying buildings, looting."

Russian peacekeepers in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone had been ordered to apply wartime laws to looters, Lavrov said.

"The civilian population should be protected against all encroachments on their lives and dignity," he said.

South Ossetia has been the focus of Russian-Georgian fighting that began late last week after Georgia launched a military incursion into South Ossetia in an effort to rout rebels.

Russia -- which supports the separatists -- responded the next day, sending tanks across the border into South Ossetia. The conflict quickly spread to parts of Georgia and to Abkhazia.

CNN

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