Medvedev commits to Friday pull-out as NATO feud erupts
by Nick Coleman 26 minutes ago
MOSCOW (AFP) - President Dmitry Medvedev issued Tuesday a fresh commitment to withdraw Russian troops from Georgia as NATO-Russia relations plunged to their lowest ebb in years.
In a telephone conversation with French counterpart and current European Union President Nicolas Sarkozy, Medvedev vowed that all but 500 Russian troops would be pulled out of the former Soviet republic on Thursday and Friday.
As Western criticism intensified over the further delay in the Russian withdrawal -- it had promised that the pullback would start Monday -- tensions between Russia and NATO began to boil over.
Moscow pulled its navy out of joint exercises with the alliance, while NATO declared that "business as usual" with the Russians would not be possible until Russia had honoured its promises.
Russian troops were sent in on August 8 to repel Georgia's attempt to retake control of South Ossetia, a tiny province on the mountainous Georgian-Russian border dominated by Moscow-backed separatists.
They proceeded to rout Georgia's army and occupy large swathes of the country before agreeing to a French-brokered ceasefire one week ago.
Under the deal, combat troops must pull out but an unspecified number of soldiers can remain as "peacekeepers", although there is little clarity on their mandate or their scope of operations.
"President Medvedev announced to Sarkozy that the withdrawal of Russian troops will be concluded August 21-22, with the exception of a team of 500 personnel charged with implementing additional security measures under article five of the August 12 agreement," a statement from the French presidency said.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer accused Russia of failing to respect the French-brokered peace plan requiring both sides to move troops back to their positions before the original Georgian offensive.
This "is not happening at the moment," the NATO chief said at an emergency meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, attending the NATO meeting, said Russia was entirely to blame for its growing diplomatic isolation in the West.
She said Moscow was isolating itself by "invading smaller neighbours, bombing civilian infrastructure, going into villages and wreaking havoc and (carrying out) the wanton destruction of (Georgia's) infrastructure."
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shot back, calling the declaration approved at the NATO meeting "unobjective and biased."
He accused NATO of trying to rescue what he called the "criminal regime" of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a close Western ally who is pushing hard to win his country membership in the alliance.
"It appears to me that NATO is trying to portray the aggressor as the victim, to whitewash a criminal regime and to save a failing regime," Lavrov said.
In New York, the UN Security Council huddled behind closed doors to mull a new draft resolution demanding full compliance with the ceasefire.
While in Georgia , Russian commanders insisted they had started to withdraw combat troops, but there was little evidence to support the statements.
Seven armoured vehicles and three tanks were seen leaving the town of Gori, which formerly housed a key Georgian army base near South Ossetia.
A senior Georgian official dismissed the Gori pull-out as "a show aimed at creating the illusion of a withdrawal."
Russian tanks and checkpoints controlled the road to Gori and journalists coming from the capital Tbilisi were denied access to the town.
The Georgian military also complained that Russian forces on Tuesday detained 21 Georgian soldiers in the western port city of Poti, which has been raided repeatedly by the Russians since the ceasefire.
In a rare gesture of goodwill, 15 Georgian and five Russian prisoners were exchanged at a checkpoint near Tbilisi.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband became the latest figure to be received in Tbilisi by Saakashvili, who has pleaded for the support of the "free world" in his country's conflict with Russia.
Miliband accused Russia of "not living up to its word" on its previous commitment to withdraw its troops on Monday.
Saakashvili had previously received the backing of Sarkozy, Rice and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Medvedev, embroiled in his first foreign policy crisis, did get some rare warm words from the authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko, who runs what Washington and EU capitals dub "Europe's last dictatorship," said Moscow had acted "excellently -- very calmly, wisely and beautifully" in the Georgia operation.
UN agencies and non-governmental organisations appealed for 58.6 million dollars (40 million euros) to provide relief aid for tens of thousands of civilians affected by the conflict.
Five more US military flights with relief supplies were dispatched to Georgia on Monday.
The White House meanwhile announced that Rice would not attend Sunday's closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing due to the pressure of world events, notably the Georgia conflict.