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Russia still entrenched in Georgia

TBILISI, August 23 – Western capitals accused Moscow of failing to respect a peace deal in Georgia as Russia retained control Saturday over the country’s main highway despite a partial withdrawal of troops.

Britain, France and the United States urged further withdrawals, saying that Friday’s pull-out of tanks, artillery and hundreds of troops from areas deep inside Georgia was insufficient.

Late Friday, Georgian police finally recovered control over Gori, a large town near South Ossetia, the Moscow-backed separatist region at the centre of the Georgian-Russian conflict.

The police went in soon after the last Russian troops rolled out in huge columns of armour, some moving into South Ossetia and others into Abkhazia, a second Russian-controlled separatist zone of Georgia.
A map of Georgia showing the latest situation in the conflict with Russia

Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Russia had now "fulfilled its obligations" under a French-brokered ceasefire plan aimed at ending the two-week old conflict.

Moscow retains full control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia and says it also has the right to establish an "area of responsibility" far beyond.

This includes fortifications near the main commercial port of Poti, in Senaki and around South Ossetia.

Moscow also claims the right to patrol a sweeping area taking in stretches of the main east-west highway and trade artery that links the capital Tbilisi to Poti.

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"It is not true that the withdrawal is complete," Georgia’s interior ministry spokesman, Shota Utiashvili, said.

The ex-Soviet republic’s Western backers told Moscow overnight that it was violating the peace accord.

US President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed during a telephone conversation that "Russia is not in compliance and that Russia needs to come into compliance now," a White House spokesman said.

Bush and Sarkozy called on Russia to "continue and complete" its withdrawal from Georgia, a statement from the French presidency added.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband also said he was "deeply concerned" and urged Russia to stick "fully and speedily" to its obligations.

Russian troops first poured into Georgia on August 8 to repel a Georgian assault on South Ossetia, smashing the country’s small US-trained army. They then fanned out through Abkhazia and far into the Georgian heartland.

The speedy military victory over Georgia, which is pressing for membership in NATO, stunned Western powers.

Since then, the United States and NATO have ratcheted up pressure on Russia.

The latest focus of international tension over the weekend was the Black Sea, where NATO naval exercises are taking place and a US destroyer was due to arrive in Georgia with what the Pentagon says are humanitarian aid supplies.

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NATO says the exercises were long pre-planned but Moscow expressed annoyance Friday.

"I do not believe that these actions can seriously contribute to the stabilisation of the situation in the region," a top general, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said.

With its army humiliated and Russian troops openly shielding the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia looks increasingly unlikely to recover its territory.

Moscow has given mixed signals over whether it might recognise the separatist governments, a move that would likely exacerbate the worst crises between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

South Ossetia’s separatist leader Eduard Kokoity was expected in Moscow on Saturday to present a demand for recognition of independence, ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

Russia’s two houses of parliament were due Monday to discuss the demands for recognition from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

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