Russia says to hand over control of Georgian town

GORI, Georgia Thu Aug 14, 2008 4:37am EDT

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GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - Russian forces said on Thursday they would start to return control of the key town of Gori to Georgia soon, after the United States called on Moscow to pull out troops and end its week-long conflict with Georgia.

Gori is strategically placed 60 km (35 miles) east of the capital Tbilisi near the rebel region of South Ossetia, controlling the main road between eastern and western Georgia.

"For another two days Russian troops will stay in the region to ... hand over control functions to Georgian law-enforcement bodies, after which they will leave," Russian news agencies quoted Russia's Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov as saying.

Borisov was addressing reporters in Gori, where Russia denied a day earlier that it even had troops although Western correspondents reported seeing Russian tanks.

"City police will start working officially here and carry out their duties to maintain security," Borisov said.

Russia's continued presence in Gori raised alarm in the West that Moscow was dragging its feet over the pull-out after agreeing to a French-brokered peace plan envisaging a quick withdrawal of Russian forces from the conflict zone.

Georgia accused Russia earlier of breaking a ceasefire in their conflict by pushing troops into Gori and allowing widespread looting -- a claim denied by Moscow.

"There's been some talk that the city is destroyed, that there is looting," said Borisov. "Everything is normal. There is even electricity."

But tensions remained high, with Russia's Interfax news agency reporting that two looters had been executed by firing squad in South Ossetia a day earlier.

"In the past few there were some facts of looting on the territory of the republic," Boris Chochiyev, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russia-backed separatist region, told Interfax.

"Yesterday our law-enforcement bodies shot dead two looters caught red handed. Today we will handle the issue even tougher."

(Writing by Maria Golovnina, edited by Richard Meares)

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