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World still waiting for Russia s pullback from Georgia

TBILISI, August 19  – The world was still waiting Tuesday for proof of Russia’s promised troop pullout from Georgia, as Tbilisi accused Moscow of "gravely violating" a ceasefire and NATO allies gathered to discuss the crisis.

The Russian defence ministry on Monday announced the start of its withdrawal, as President Dmitry Medvedev lauded the army’s assault on the neighbouring country.

But Georgia accused Russia of stalling and said continued military operations there contravened a ceasefire agreement.

"The Russian side is gravely violating the conditions provided for by the peace accord signed by the presidents of Georgia, France and the Russian Federation," the Georgian foreign ministry said in a statement.

The ministry cited new operations by Russia on Monday, including the re-occupation of a military base in Senaki in the west of the country where explosions were heard by AFP.

US officials said Monday that Russia had moved short-range SS-21 missile launchers into South Ossetia since fighting there halted last week, and has yet to give any sign of a significant pullback of its troops from Georgia.

Instead, there were indications that Russia was adding ground troops and equipment to its force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, strengthening its hold over the breakaway Georgian regions, the officials said.

Russia denies deploying the powerful short-range SS-21s.

The Kremlin insists it was right to storm across Georgia’s border on August 8 in response to a Georgian offensive against Moscow-backed separatists in the South Ossetia region.

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In five days of combat Russian forces routed Georgia’s tiny US-trained army and occupied swathes of the country far beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another region run by Russian-backed separatists.

Speaking in Vladikavkaz, near Russia’s mountain border with Georgia, Medvedev said Georgia could not "go unpunished" for its assault against the separatist region.

He also said Russia was strongly determined to ensure "security throughout the region," warning: "We will do whatever is necessary, and no one should have any illusion" about this.

His words were a rebuke to Western leaders who see Georgia is a victim of Russian aggression.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ramped up her criticism as she arrived in Brussels ahead of a NATO meeting Tuesday.

She called for NATO to reaffirm support for Georgia’s bid for membership, warning that Russia had a "strategic objective" of preventing the Western alliance’s expansion.

Rice will continue on to Warsaw to sign a deal on deploying part of a missile defence shield on Polish territory, a plan that Russia describes as hostile.

However in a sign that Western allies have few cards to play against oil-rich Russia, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said EU governments would not "threaten" Russia or impose an ultimatum for a withdrawal.

Under the withdrawal deal brokered by France, Georgian troops must return to bases and Russian troops leave the territory.

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An unspecified number of Russian troops are to remain as "peacekeepers" in and around South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia fears that this force will amount to an unofficial occupation.

The withdrawal will not be implemented "very swiftly", a defence ministry official was quoted as saying Tuesday in the Russian daily Kommersant.

"Nobody is planning to withdraw the Russian contingent very swiftly, as there is no such necessity," he said.

The popular Tvoi Den tabloid meanwhile claimed that observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had acted as spies for Georgia.

The OSCE failed to decide on Monday whether to send more ceasefire observers to Georgia.

Returning from a visit to Georgia, US Senator Joseph Biden said he would work on preparing a one billion dollar (670 million euro) aid package for Georgia.

UN agencies and non-governmental organizations meanwhile 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 as Washington considered the possibility of sea humanitarian missions, officials said.

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