Huffpost Politics

Russia To Keep 7,600 Troops In 2 Georgia Regions

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TBILISI, Georgia — Russia announced Tuesday it would keep 7,600 troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for the foreseeable future, asserting power in the breakaway regions even as it began a pullout from positions deeper in Georgia.

The Kremlin's plans for a heavy military footprint in the enclaves mock Georgia's hopes that a revised peace agreement will lead to a complete Russian withdrawal from the fractured country at the heart of a bitter fray between Moscow and the West.

The deal that emerged from a day of frantic French diplomacy Monday may defuse tension by removing Russian forces from positions they hold in Georgia weeks after last month's war. But it left serious questions unanswered.

After hours of talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised to withdraw all Russian forces from positions outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia within about a month.

Medvedev's pledge seemed like a startling concession from Moscow, which had adamantly claimed to have met its obligations under the cease-fire brokered by Sarkozy last month. As recently as Sunday, Georgia said Russia was reinforcing its positions around a key port.

But even as it promises to pull back from positions outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia is strengthening its grip on the separatist regions themselves. That runs counter to Western demands that they remain a part of Georgia and casts a shadow over President Mikhail Saakashvili's hopes of uniting the nation.

On Tuesday, Russian forces pulled out of a position near Abkhazia, officials and residents said. Georgia's Rustavi-2 television showed residents of the Black Sea coastal town of Ganmukhuri rejoicing at the Russian departure.

"We have regained our freedom," said one woman.

Georgian Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia said the Russians had maintained three or four armored personnel carriers and a few dozen troops at the post. He said it was one of 24 Russian checkpoints or positions outside Abkhazia or South Ossetia as of Tuesday morning.

Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency cited an unidentified Defense Ministry official as saying that a full withdrawal had begun Tuesday. However, Defense Ministry spokesmen could not be reached to comment on the report.

At the Russian checkpoint at Karaleti, on the main road leading from Georgian-controlled territory to South Ossetia, there was no sign of a pullout. And Interior Ministry official Shota Utiashvili said later Tuesday that there had been no other withdrawal activity.

In Moscow, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told Medvedev in a televised meeting Tuesday that about 3,800 troops will be based each in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia _ a far larger presence than before the war.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested they would stay indefinitely, saying they were needed to prevent Georgia from trying to regain control of the regions, which Russia has recognized as independent. Only Nicaragua has joined Russia in recognizing the enclaves as independent.

"They will remain there for a long time," Lavrov told reporters of the troops. "Their presence there will be needed at least for the foreseeable future to prevent any relapses of aggressive actions."

Russia repelled Georgia's Aug. 7 offensive against South Ossetia and sent troops and tanks deep into Georgia. Most Russian troops withdrew late last month but ringed the regions with checkpoints and deployed hundreds of soldiers near the Black Sea port of Poti.

Russia has painted Saakashvili as a dangerously bellicose leader encouraged to use force by the United States, which is vying with Russia for influence in the key transit corridor for Caspian and Central Asian oil and gas.

On Tuesday, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin circulated a draft resolution to the Security Council that would order all countries to take measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of arms to Georgia. Churkin said Russia knows it can expect strong opposition from some council members, particularly the United States.

A senior U.S. official, Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman, told lawmakers at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday that the United States is reviewing how to help Georgia rebuild its military.

Georgia blames Russia for the war and is calling for a complete withdrawal of Russian forces, including from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"There is no way Georgia will ever give up a piece of its sovereignty, a piece of its territory," Saakashvili said Tuesday.

Apparent differences in interpretation threatened further disputes.

Lavrov suggested that Russia and the European Union may be at odds over the mandate of EU observers to be deployed in areas surrounding Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Oct. 1. The deal obliges Russia to pull out of those regions within 10 days of the deployment.

Sarkozy and Georgian officials said EU monitors would have access to the separatist regions themselves. Lavrov, however, said only observers from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could be deployed there.

Georgia also vociferously objected to Russia's insistence that Abkhazia and South Ossetia be represented at an international conference beginning Oct. 15 in Geneva.

"This is absolutely unacceptable for Georgia. We are not going to talk to war criminals," Georgia's Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili said. "They are not a side in this conflict. They are puppets of the Russian side."

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Associated Press writers David Nowak, Vladimir Isachenkov and Mike Eckel in Moscow and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Karaleti, Georgia, contributed to this report.