Russia delays troop pullout from Georgia to weekend (Lead)

August 20th, 2008 - 8:03 pm ICT by IANS  

Tbilisi (Georgia), Aug 20 (DPA) Russia’s army Wednesday continued its occupation of two enclaves in Georgia as Kremlin officials claimed they would accelerate what they said was an already in-progress withdrawal.President Dmitry Medvedev promised his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy that all but a 500-strong contingent of peace keepers would leave Georgian soil by Friday.

But Russian troops were operating road checkpoints throughout Georgia’s Gori region, allowing civilian traffic to pass after inspection but blocking official Georgian vehicles.

Russian naval infantry held Georgia’s Black Sea port of Poti under firm control as well as the key road hub Senaki, 30 km inland.

Russian engineers were continuing dismantling or destroying of Georgian military infrastructure throughout the Russian area of occupation.

Four loud explosions at Senaki were seemingly the first step of a systematic Russian project to demolish a Georgian air force base there. A Georgian infantry training camp nearby was burning, witnesses said.

Russian naval troops towed a Georgian coast guard cutter and a marine landing ship out to sea and sank both vessels, Georgia’s Rustaveli-2 television reported Tuesday.

Western governments have accused Russia of violating the terms of a ceasefire signed last week, stipulating that Moscow begin a full withdrawal Monday.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted in the International Tribune slamming Russian for not acting on Medvedev’s repeated promises to pull out: “We cannot accept this kind of blindness, not accepting international law.”

A consortium of Western powers are pushing for a UN Security Council resolution demanding for Russia’s immediate withdrawal, but Moscow, which holds a UN-veto, blocked the motion.

Mounting international anger at Russia also spilled over in relations with NATO on Tuesday when the organization suspended regular ties with Russia as long as it hosted troops in Georgian territory

The move provoked an angry response from Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who called the decision “one-sided” and “bias,” charging the alliances readiness to discuss extending Georgia membership were a continuation of Cold War containment policy.

Georgia’s other rebel region of Abkhazia, meanwhile, was set to lodge a formal appeal with Moscow on Wednesday to be recognized as an independent state.

The speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament said Russian lawmakers were “ready” to endorse such an appeal on Wednesday.

Both breakaway regions have been self-governed since winning a war of succession from Georgia in the early 1990s, but while South Ossetians would like to unite with the ethnically-linked Russian region to the north, Abkhazia is lobbying to be recognized as an independent country.

In the aftermath of last week’s bloody conflict, hundreds of Georgian civilians living in South Ossetia fled, and journalists in the region reported Wednesday that their burned villages are being demolished by bulldozers brought in as part of the Russian
reconstruction effort in the devastated capital of the separatists region.

Russian army chief of staff Colonel General Anatoly Nagovitsyn said Russia had already has begun thinning out its troops and would accelerate its pullout by Friday, news agency Interfax reported.

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