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Russia accord signing is 'hopeful step': Bush

US President George W Bush says that Russia's signing of a peace deal over its conflict with Georgia is a "hopeful step".

world Updated: Aug 16, 2008 21:46 IST

US President George W Bush said Saturday that Russia's signing of a peace deal over its conflict with Georgia is a "hopeful step," but warned that breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia must remain part of Georgia.

Speaking from his ranch in Crawford, Texas just hours after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a French-brokered ceasefire deal, Bush told reporters: "It's a hopeful step."

"Now Russia needs to honor the agreement and withdraw its forces," he added.

The president stressed however that the two regions at the heart of the bloody conflict that has gripped Russia and Georgia for the past two weeks are "a part of Georgia," and "they will remain so."

"There is no room for debate on this matter," Bush added shortly after meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other cabinet members to hear her report on her mission to the battered former Soviet republic and to France.

The president and Rice, joined by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley by secure videoconference, took stock of the nearly two-week old crisis.

Bush, who denounced Russia's actions in two separate statements on Friday, made the remarks after the meeting, and shortly after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow that Russian troops in Georgia had no timetable for withdrawing, as required under a peace deal.

Asked by journalists how long a pullout from Georgia would take, Lavrov replied: "As long as needed."

He added it would depend on Russian units being able to implement unspecified "additional security measures."

Russian troops still control swathes of Georgia, including beyond the limits of South Ossetia where they poured in last week to support local separatists against a Georgian offensive.

In a display of the US administration's determination to protect Georgia's sovereignty, Bush announced that Rice will travel next week to Brussels, where she will meet with the foreign ministers of NATO allies and EU officials in an effort to shore up support for embattled Georgia.

Bush and top aides have repeatedly denounced what they have described as Russia's disproportionate response to Georgian strikes on separatists in South Ossetia, but have not specified US reprisals.

"Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century," the US president scolded Moscow in a brief statement Friday before leaving the White House for his adoptive home state.

Despite the signing of the ceasefire deal, Russian troops dug in close to the Georgian capital Saturday, showing no sign of preparing to withdraw.

Russian troops, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, were seen on the main road from South Ossetia to Tbilisi, just 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Georgian capital.

Troops also remained in control of the main checkpoint into Gori, 60 kilometers northwest of Tbilisi.