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Withdrawing troops from Georgia: Russia

Russia promised to withdraw most forces from deep inside Georgia, but was set to retain a military presence in two separatist regions and a buffer zone.

world Updated: Aug 22, 2008 14:16 IST

Russia promised to withdraw most forces from deep inside Georgia on Friday, but was set to retain a military presence in two separatist regions and a buffer zone.

Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced the pull-out two weeks after tanks and troops poured into South Ossetia to repel an attempt by Georgia's army to seize back control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region.

"On Friday August 22 at 6:00 am local time (0200 GMT), all Russian forces will begin their withdrawal from Georgian territory to South Ossetia," Serdyukov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

"Over the course of August 22, the retreat... will be completed," he said.

However, Serdyukov indicated that only advance troops posted deep inside Georgia would be affected -- not the huge force of troops and heavy equipment now occupying Georgia's rebel South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions.

The commander of Russian ground forces in the region, General Vladimir Boldyrev, said late on Thursday that the bulk of troops "will require around 10 days to leave their current positions," ITAR-TASS reported.

In addition to Russia's presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- which have been run by Moscow-backed separatists since the early 1990s -- a contingent will remain in a buffer zone outside South Ossetia, Serdyukov said.

"Russian peacekeeping soldiers, in numbers required to ensure security, will remain within the limits of the security zone, at specially-installed posts," Serdyukov was quoted as saying.

According to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, 500 Russian soldiers were to remain at eight checkpoints within this area.

An AFP reporter on the border of Russia and Georgia on Thursday saw little military traffic leaving South Ossetia.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Russia of "stalling" and "taking new strategic positions."

Russian tanks poured into Georgia on August 8, initially to repel an attempt by Georgia's army to seize back control of South Ossetia, where separatists broke away in the early 1990s.

Troops then expelled Georgian forces from their last foothold in Abkhazia, which likewise broke from Georgian rule in the 1990s with Russian backing. They also took control of key towns, military bases, roads and the oil port of Poti.

Although the conflict is centred on tiny areas of land nestled under the Caucasus mountains, an international crisis soon evolved when Russia attacked strongly pro-Western Georgia's army.

So far Western capitals have had little leverage over Russia, a major energy exporter to Europe and an important player on major international issues including the Iranian nuclear programme.

At the United Nations, the Security Council again failed on Thursday to agree on a resolution enshrining the French-brokered peace plan governing the troops withdrawal in Georgia.

US President George W Bush told Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili on Thursday that he wanted a quick end to Russia's "siege," the White House said.

"In the phone call, President Bush said that the United States is looking for Russian compliance with the agreement to withdraw their forces and an end to their siege of Georgia," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Earlier, the White House demanded that Moscow withdraw its forces "now" from Georgia and warned there can be no Russia-NATO military cooperation until the crisis is over.

"I can't imagine a circumstance right now that we would engage in military cooperation with the Russians until the situation in Georgia is resolved," Johndroe told reporters.

Russia also informed NATO on Thursday that it was suspending all cooperation over the crisis.

Following the conflict, Georgia appears increasingly unlikely to recover control of its two separatist regions.

On Thursday, tens of thousands gathered in Sukhumi, capital of Abkhazia, to demand Russian recognition of their independence.

Over 1,000 people attended a similar rally in South Ossetia's main town Tskhinvali.

Moscow has hinted at giving both recognition in a move that would risk sparking one of the deepest crises between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Russia's two houses of parliament are to meet on the issue in emergency session on Monday. The Kremlin would have the final decision.