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Russia to control key highway: General

Russia will retain control over a key highway linking the Georgian capital to the sea even after completing a troop pullout.

world Updated: Aug 22, 2008 22:06 IST

Russia will retain control over a key highway linking the Georgian capital to the sea even after completing a troop pullout, maps shown to journalists by a top general indicated on Friday.

The maps, displayed at a press conference by deputy chief of general staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn, clearly showed Russia's self-proclaimed "zone of responsibility" to include long stretches of Georgia's main east-west road.

These included most of the route from Georgia's main commercial port of Poti to the town of Senaki, where Nogovitsyn said troops would occupy the military aerodrome.

Nogovitsyn said the zones were permitted under previous agreements that let Russian peacekeepers patrol parts of Georgia after the separatist wars of the early 1990s, when Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke free of Tbilisi's control.

"All these zones are legitimate and arise from the framework of the existing agreements. This is our principal position," the general said.

It was unclear whether Russian forces would block the east-west road, cutting off a major transport corridor for the Caucasus country.

When asked if Russian forces would check cars along the road, the general said: "Why should they bother with such details?"

According to the maps, one "zone of responsibility" was situated near the rebel region of Abkhazia in the west of Georgia, while the other zone was located near South Ossetia, another rebel region.

The zone around South Ossetia enclosed stretches of Georgia's main east-west road but did not include the central Georgian city of Gori.

It extended past the administrative borders of South Ossetia, reaching in various places from six to 18 kilometres (from four to 11 miles) into Georgia proper.

Russia planned to leave eight posts manned by 272 servicemen along the outer line of the South Ossetia zone, and 10 posts manned by 180 servicemen along the inner line, which corresponds to South Ossetia's border, Nogovitsyn said.

Russian officials have earlier suggested that more troops could stay within South Ossetia, behind the buffer zone, without giving an exact number.

A second buffer zone extended around Abkhazia, fully enclosing the Georgian town of Zugdidi, reaching to Senaki and stopping just north of Poti, whose port has attracted major foreign investment in recent years.

The map marked two Russian posts just north of Poti. It also showed that the limits of the Abkhazia buffer zone enclosed most of the road connecting Poti and Senaki.

Nogovitsyn dismissed complaints from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that the presence of Russian forces amounted to occupation of Georgia.

"We will not ask Mr Saakashvili about the buffer zones" as he has "neither the legal nor the moral right" to ask for changes, Nogovitsyn said.

Russia poured troops and armour into Georgia earlier this month to repel a Georgian attack on South Ossetia, whose separatist administration, like that of Abkhazia, is backed by Moscow.