TBILISI, August 18 – The world awaited the promised start of a Russian pullout of combat troops from Georgia on Monday, as a plan to retain Russian "peacekeepers" in the embattled Caucasus republic sparked new tension.
Western allies of President Mikheil Saakashvili further upped the pressure on Moscow to quit Georgia as Russian troops dug in less than half an hour’s drive from the capital Tbilisi.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel assured Saakashvili in Tbilisi that NATO remained ready to give membership to the ex-Soviet republic, as promised at a NATO summit in April, despite the conflict with Russia.
Separately, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on US television that Russia’s reputation was in "tatters."
With a ceasefire holding, President Dmitry Medvedev assured his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday that Russian regular forces "from tomorrow… will begin withdrawing," the Kremlin said.
However, new tensions gathered over Russia’s longer-term military plans in the small but strategically located ex-Soviet republic.
Russia plans to deploy a peacekeeping force of unspecified size that Georgian officials worry could turn into an open-ended occupation.
Merkel voiced strong support for Georgia’s bid to join the NATO military alliance, saying: "Georgia will become a member of NATO if it wants to — and it does want to."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will meet Monday to discuss a plan to send 100 extra observers to Georgia, according to the body’s Finnish chairman Alexander Stubb.
"Russia’s reputation as a potential partner in international institutions, diplomatic, political, security, economic, is frankly, in tatters," Rice told NBC television’s "Meet the Press."
Sarkozy phoned Moscow on Sunday and, in an article for French newspaper Le Figaro to appear Monday, called for the withdrawal "without delay" of Russian troops from Georgia, adding: "This point is not negotiable."
In South Ossetia itself, President Eduard Kokoity late Sunday dismissed his government and proclaimed a state of emergency in the rebel region, Russia’s Vesti-24 television reported.
"I have signed three decrees including one on the resignation of the government, another on proclamation of a state of emergency in South Ossetia and the third on setting up an emergency committee to settle the consequences of the Georgian aggression," Kokoity told the channel.
Gori In Gori, a Russian-occupied town beyond South Ossetia, the commanding general said a switch from regular troops had already begun.
Russian forces continued to man positions along the road from Tbilisi to Gori, including at a checkpoint in Igoeti, only 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the capital.
An AFP reporter saw a long column of Russian vehicles, including about 25 tanks and 25 armoured personnel carriers, parked outside Gori. A Russian soldier told AFP the forces were peacekeepers and would be staying.
However, a leading UN official in Georgia said large-scale aid deliveries were still being held up.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees meanwhile Sunday said the number of people displaced had reached 158,600, and there were scenes of desperation in Gori as a trickle of supplies began arriving.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Sunday that Ossetian irregulars were attacking ethnic-Georgians in Russian-controlled areas. It called for Russian authorities to take immediate steps to end the violence.
A rift over the status of South Ossetia and another rebel region, Abkhazia, stymied efforts by the UN Security Council on Sunday to agree a resolution endorsing the French-brokered truce, diplomats said.