Russian troops to withdraw from Georgia on Monday: Medvedev

August 18th, 2008 - 4:14 am ICT by IANS  

Moscow, Aug 18 (DPA) Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Sunday afternoon announced that withdrawals of his country’s troops from Georgia would begin Monday, apparently ignoring calls from the US and Germany for an immediate withdrawal. Russian officials, while conceding that their forces are in Georgian military bases destroying material, denied that Russian troops have been staying in Georgian villages and cities.

“Presently we have no units in Gori or Poti,” Deputy Chief of Staff General Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Sunday, as reported by the Interfax news agency.

Witness reports said Russian infantry had backed out of some areas of Georgia, having fallen back some 3 kilometres from the village of Igoeti Saturday.

Russian troops were halting all traffic moving on the Tbilisi-Gori highway.

Prior to evacuating Igoeti, Russian combat engineers blew up a Georgian railroad bridge in the vicinity, villagers said.

Russian marines and naval troops Sunday were seen leaving the Georgian port of Poti after having demolished Georgian naval installations and removed tons of Georgian military materials by lorry, witnesses said.

Russia’s general staff also reported Russian forces had taken control of the Ingursk hydroelectric dam on the border between Georgia and the secessionist province Abkhazia.

However, combat and support troops from Russia’s 58th Army were reported to have been using the Georgian city Gori, a major road hub, as their base of operations.

Russian mobile forces in the west of Georgia Sunday also showed no signs of abandoning the city of Senaki, like Gori a key road hub in the region.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, having arrived in Tbilisi on Sunday for talks with the Georgian leadership on the ceasefire arrangement and possible EU assistance to Georgia, called on Medvedev to begin troop withdrawals.

Merkel also repeated that Germany’s position was that Georgia’s territorial integrity was beyond question, and that its borders should be inviolate.

The German leader hinted her country, formerly unenthusiastic about early Georgian entrance into NATO, might be reconsidering its position, saying that the proposal that NATO extend a formal invitation for Georgia to embark on NATO accession “will of course come up for review in December … and we will look at this very closely.”

Merkel in comments to reporters confirmed discussions were under way with Georgia, and via French President Nicolas Sarkozy with Russia, for the positioning of a European peacekeeper force in the Ossetia region, and that Germany might contribute soldiers to the force.

US President George W Bush had Saturday called on Moscow to end the crisis in Georgia as Medvedev signed a six-point European Union- mediated peace plan in the conflict over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“Russia needs to honour the agreement and withdraw its forces, and of course end military operations,” Bush said from his ranch in Crawford Texas.

A key point of the plan is the withdrawal of Russian armed forces to positions held before hostilities began in South Ossetia last week.

In the United States, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had not lived up to his pledges to ensure power remained with the presidency when he left the office in May.

Gates said on ABC News television Sunday that the US had been hopeful that new the leadership would look more toward Russia’s future, but developments “speak more of Putin having his hand on the steering wheel more than anybody else.”

“There is a real concern that Russia has turned the corner and is headed back toward its past rather than its future,” Gates said.

Russia’s Aug 7 invasion of southern neighbour Georgia has brought Russia’s relations with the West to its worst crisis point since the end of the Cold War.

“We’ve been deeply disturbed by Russia’s actions,” Gates said, urging moderate Russian leaders like Medvedev to begin exercising more influence to “get the rhetoric under control,” referring to General Nogovitsyn’s comments on the US missile-defence shield.

Nogovitsyn said Russia’s nuclear war doctrine calls for the targeting of anti-missile-defence systems.

“By putting up interceptors, Poland is placing itself at risk. In terms of priority, such targets are the first to be destroyed,” he said.

Gates called the threat “empty rhetoric”.

“Russia is not going to launch nuclear missiles at anybody,” he said.

The United States and Poland initialled an agreement Thursday that would allow the stationing of 10 interceptor missiles on Polish soil, after sealing a deal with the Czech Republic in July to host the system’s radar.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI called for immediate help for the refugees from the conflict in South Ossetia.

“I call for the opening, without further delay, of humanitarian corridors between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia so that the dead who are still abandoned can receive a proper burial, the wounded can be treated and people can rejoin their loved ones,” the head of the Catholic Church said following his Angelus blessing.

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